Interview with Thought Leader Mike Strasser, VP/GM at Imperative Care
Mike Strasser is a prolific San Francisco-based product designer, entrepreneur and lecturer coach at Stanford’s d.school. He’s on 36 patents and his work spans cars for BMW, consumer tech for Steve Jobs at Apple and super-sonic planes for NASA. Most recently, his Motiv venture, brought to market a disruptive addition to the fitness and health tracker category.
In this interview, Mike shares how his foundation in design thinking, and interest in impactful products to improve people’s lives, is core to his mission.
The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. We hope you find it valuable and welcome your comments at the bottom of the page.
WHAT DID YOUR PARENTS DO FOR WORK?
I had a scientific and engineering based upbringing, my mom was a chemist, and is very creative and hands-on, so I got to learn that I can make almost anything. My dad is an engineer; he’s very technically minded, and growing up I learned a lot watching him do projects around the house. Seeing how he built things, and being exposed to all that stuff, helped make me who I am.
HOW DID YOUR PARENTS INFLUENCE THE DIRECTION YOU TOOK IN LIFE?
They were a large part of it, I guess exposure to the engineering world. Just seeing what they'd done. Combining my mom’s creativity and my dad's engineering, I think they taught me how to be a problem solver. As a high schooler you don't know what different professions are really like, so you have to extrapolate based on the exposure you have. So it seemed logical to me to learn more about engineering and when I graduated high school, I went on to pursue a degree in Mechanical Engineering.
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR FIRST JOB
My internship was at NASA’s Ames Research Center, in Moffett Field. It was my first real job. I got the job because I was super persistent, once I found out who the hiring manager was, I wouldn’t stop calling him until he gave me the job. My boss said, “Here's your task, we want you to process aerodynamic data from missile tests. This should take you the whole summer.” Well, I finished it within two weeks and that's when I got to work on the cool stuff, like the next generation Concorde aircraft — and acoustic analysis of wind tunnel chambers — both were really fun to work on.
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE AT STANFORD’S D.SCHOOL
For graduate school, I went to Stanford’s Joint Program in Product Design, that was before d.school existed. Back then, the design program was the black sheep of the University. Every other program had their labs and were well funded. We were an organization that didn't quite fit the mold of the University, because we didn’t do research — that's why we were considered misfits doing all the crazy projects. But what’s interesting, some time after I graduated, there has been more and more interest into the design thinking methodology. David Kelley, founder of the design consultancy IDEO, and some other visionary investors, founded what’s now called the d.school. This legitimized the misfit part of the university, to the point where it became the poster child. Stanford has now incorporated design thinking into all their disciplines, and every undergraduate student goes through a design thinking class.
Back in those days, the program was a combination between Stanford's art and engineering program — a unique program, because why would you ever put engineers and artists in the same room? The programs’ intention has always been to solve user-centered needs.
HOW DID YOUR FIRST COMPANY THINK2BUILD GET STARTED?
I had been at IDEO for eight years at the time and saw how a consultancy operated. Design was evolving beyond products to include business strategy, systems thinking and services design. When IDEO was getting into the strategic business thinking, I wanted to stay with my roots of how to build stuff, so I started my own consultancy focusing on that. I named my company Think2Build, because I wanted to communicate how we approached designing products in a way that’s easy to manufacture.
WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM THINK2BUILD THAT YOU TOOK ON TO YOUR NEXT BUSINESS?
I ran Think2Build for about 10 years and had a really good run with some great clients. About 40% of our business was medical devices, with consumer electronics, industrial, and furniture making up the other 60%. I really enjoyed the medical devices space, developing both surgical tools and implantable devices for patients. We designed things that solved an unmet need at a very fundamental level. When patients are in pain, they need a solution. Those were the most rewarding projects to work on. That's where I solidified my interest in the health space, products with the mission to improve people’s lives and preventative based products to help people avoid surgery all together. While it was nice to develop other company’s products, I wanted a crack at taking a product all the way to market, so that’s when I co-founded Motiv.
WHAT WISDOM CAME FROM YOUR MOTIV VENTURE?
I learned a lot beyond what I already knew about product design; such as what it takes to create a startup company, fundraising, building a team, understanding holes in business models, and how to make sure you address those holes to scale and sustain a business.
I learned that businesses worth building are ones where you can manage the cash flow in a way that you maintain control of the company.
As a start-up you can only take on so much work, so when possible, only innovate where you need to. If someone else has solved certain parts of your business, use their off-the-shelf service or technology and focus on the parts that don’t yet exist. A critical piece that we needed to focus on was our curved, high capacity battery, which was crucial to make the product possible.
WHAT INTERESTED YOU TO START A PRODUCT COMPANY?
I was interested in a scalable business model beyond consulting, that would allow me to exercise muscle in an area that I hadn't gone beyond. Doing consulting has a limited business model, I was excited to build a large audience and have control of the entire solution. Typically with consulting, you hand off the work to your client who takes it to the final stages. In this case, I wanted to have the opportunity to take the work all the way through to commercialization. That's when Motiv started.
WHAT’S YOUR VISION FOR MOTIV?
There should always be a big vision behind any product. When you see the first version of a product, there’s usually a big vision behind it, and you may not see it at first. If you see a paperclip, you can realize there's a limited number of uses to that product. But when you're building a sophisticated product, then you can think, “What are all the things that this can do in the future?” To make a compelling vision for investors, it has to go beyond just the first product.
I feel the most exciting aspect of Motiv is that it’s a data platform.
The data can be used for a lot of great purposes down the road, beyond just a personal health and fitness tracker. That is really just an entry point to a much bigger opportunity. In this case, the big vision is it’s collecting data about your health, providing initial value through the fitness space. But ultimately the vision is to transform the medical space by providing diagnostic and predictive healthcare.
The platform sees patterns because we’ve measured your body every day, 24 hours a day like sensors on your car. So when there's something that goes out of normal, there could be a check engine light that alerts you to see a doctor. We can even be specific as to the condition that algorithms have some level of confidence in such as, “you may have sleep apnea.” And then we can help the user as to why they have been sleeping poorly. That’s the ultimate vision.
IF YOU HAD THE OPPORTUNITY TO DO MOTIV ALL OVER AGAIN, WHAT THINGS WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY?
One thing I may have done differently is to start with a strong software co-founder. There’s a balance between focus on really solid infrastructure and getting the product built. If you don't build anything, and your just constantly talking about foundation, you're going to run out of money and will never have a product. But if you build too hastily, and it's a house of cards, then it doesn't have scalability. It's a really tight balance and we may have been moving too fast in a lot of things we did early on. If we had stronger leadership in software that could have helped.
HOW DID PRODUCT DECISION MAKING WORK IN PRACTICE AS A LEADERSHIP TEAM?
There are people building the tracks and there's the people building the train. Leadership needs to be out ahead of the train, laying down tracks and making decisions about where those tracks get laid. The team is building the train, which is critical for the whole system to operate. So in this case, we started out building an entire network of tracks. But then we paired it down, to connect the most important two cities. And then, we moved on to the most effective way of building those tracks so that the train could operate between those two cities. Although we wanted to take the train everywhere, initially we focused on the MVP - the minimum viable product. Our approach was to focus on that first, and then over time add new functionality with software and firmware updates.
A lot of companies follow this business model. Like Apple is a good example of company who comes out with their MVP. They have a few cool features, but then over time offer a software update with exciting functionality. You keep wanting the latest and greatest features, and they give them to you over time, so they can continue to sell you the latest, i-Phone.
Tesla's an example of a company who approaches product design very differently. They load up a ton of features, their MVP is really no M. They're core innovation is the car design, the motors and the batteries. But they didn’t stop there, they introduced the car with all sorts of cool features like the way the door handles work. Or the way the doors work. Or the way the interior controls works. They’ve taken on a lot at once and they’ve been able to bring it all together seamlessly. You have to give them respect for the level of complexity that they’ve been able to achieve with a brand new car company.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR AN ASPIRING PRODUCT DESIGNER?
The development process of fail often to succeed sooner, works really well with the MVP approach. Failure is learning. You're learning about what you did, and what you'll do differently next time. If you fail late in the process, because you didn't build your first prototype early enough, the product becomes riddled with problems — because you're learning about things that could have been solved earlier. Iterative problem solving makes better products since you solve the challenges as you go.
Failure is very good; it's healthy, it's informative, and it helps you make a better product.
If you build the product incrementally, you first build a prototype and then you build on that, you are improving with each version. The MVP approach enables you to solve some of the bigger issues ahead of time, then you can add functionality prior to production. But if you don't get the first part to work, it’s better to get the basics to work before you start adding on more features.
In a small start up that’s boot strapped, or someone considering starting a company right now, they're doing it out in their garage. And if they have this idea, and they burden the first version with all these great features, they may be great but the company will never see the light of day -- because they run out of money before it does. That's a tragedy if that happens. It’s better to have something come to market, and then you can have the next version follow that. So the way I look at an MVP list is you draw a line. Anything below the line is saved for a subsequent version. That way you still acknowledge its value, and you realize it's on a road map for a future version, but you don't build it in to your first version.
HOW COULD DESIGN THINKING SOLVE THE ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS WE FACE TODAY?
Looking outside of my apartment here in San Francisco, it’s really hazy. Rather then clear blue skies it's dark yellow smog right now. I can't even see to the end of the street and I normally can see all the way to the mountains. It’s due to the California forest fires that we're having. The smoke is being blown over here, coupled by the smog making the air quality really bad.
In the case of the environment, I think the approach is to solve problems by building entirely new products for transportation, and for energy sectors, for example. It’s ambitious, but the approach can not be constrained by existing ways of thinking. There are cultures that are based off generations of tradition, and they don't challenge the status quo because it's against their culture. I think the start up culture, the design thinking culture says, the way way of doing things isn’t necessarily the best way. You understand the established norms, then you look at it from a different, naïve perspective. And potentially that naivety will bring you to a new solution that the establishment never thought was possible.
There are people thinking about ways of doing ocean clean up using autonomous vehicles; others thinking about carbon dioxide sequestration, and others talking about ways of using the ocean's bio mass in ways to convert carbon dioxide, by basically seeding the oceans to make them a flourishing converter for the earth. There's obviously less environmentally polluting vehicles as well. Any one of those areas all could use design thinking to help to solve those areas in more effective ways.