(By Jenn Godbout)
“We thought about starting FiftyThree, and knew we wanted to start our own company for three years before actually doing it. Part of our preparation included being ready to work for 18 months without pay. That was the commitment we made in order to give it a proper shot. The way I rationalised it was that it’s the same as going to grad school. You could go get an MBA for $150,000 and two years of your life, to go on someone else’s journey, or you could take that money and time and go make your own dream.“
FiftyThree turned a lot of heads when their first project, Paper, was named Apple’s app of the year. Though the feat is less surprising when you hear the founders’ track record: these are the designers and engineers behind products like PowerPoint, Word, Excel, Xbox, and Photosynth.
We caught up with Georg Petschnigg, who founded FiftyThree after 10 years at Microsoft, to find out how he prepared to go out on his own, why his team maps out projects like TV episodes, and why passion matters most.
Your team has a pretty unique way of working, how do you make sure new members fit the bill?
There’s a simple question we ask when we’re thinking about bringing a new person onto our team: are they good at a minimum of two things? And that could be something like software development plus playing the trombone, or visual design plus film making. This is important because it’s really humbling to become good in yet another discipline, if you’re just good at one thing it’s easy to believe that you actually understand it and are the expert. But when you try to learn something new, like another language, you’re instantly humbled. And that’s really important to us, because we believe that creation really happens when boundaries are crossed.
Speaking of being good at two things, one of your co-founders is a filmmaker/UX designer. How does that work?
Yeah, Andrew Allen is an award-winning filmmaker who ended up working with software because he felt like it was a really under-utilized narrative medium. His draw to interaction design was actually really motivated by his work as a filmmaker and his narrative approach works really well with us.
Now when we plan out our work, we plot out each project like an episode for a TV show. Our first episode was called Ideas Begin on Paper. We created a storyboard first that showed someone capturing their ideas throughout their day in New York from the first person. We used the storyboard to frame our development work and when we were done we actually shot the video to go along with the launch. Instead of trying to explain what we built to our customers after it’s done, we explain it internally first and build from there—that way we also understand what we’re building and why every step of the way.
When we released additional colors, our deadline was dependent on nature, so as we were writing code we were noticing the temperature change and were racing to finish before the leaves changed color. It was actually really thrilling to have this reminder all around you and it also humanizes the entire process, rather than just working towards milestone 1.3. This episodic approach means that the product experience is incomplete if the narrative isn’t being fulfilled.
Leaving Microsoft after 10 years to start your own company is a pretty big leap, what was that like?
We thought about starting FiftyThree, and knew we wanted to start our own company for three years before actually doing it. Part of our preparation included being ready to work for 18 months without pay. That was the commitment we made in order to give it a proper shot. The way I rationalised it was that it’s the same as going to grad school. You could go get an MBA for $150,000 and two years of your life, to go on someone else’s journey, or you could take that money and time and go make your own dream.
The scariest day is the day before you leave, but the best day is the day after that. After you leave you can actually devote time and energy to the things you’re passionate about, and you feel so much more whole. The day after leaving I was like, “I should have done this much sooner.” And I’m saying that as someone who had 10 great years at Microsoft—it wasn’t dull at all. I got to work on some amazing projects, but there hasn’t been a day since leaving when I haven’t felt 100 percent clear on what I’m doing and the purpose behind it, which is a deep source of inspiration and I wouldn’t ever give that up.
You and your co-founders have worked on some of the most technologically advanced products like Xbox 360, Microsoft Office, and Sonos that took years to develop. What advice can you share on making it to the finish line?
There is tremendous joy to be had in polishing and finishing a given project. You have to owe it to yourself to finish, which is why it’s important to go after the projects you’re personally most passionate about. I mean take New York for example – everything is so fast-paced in this city, and every press release is about the next overnight success, but there are no overnight successes. Things just take time. You have to accept that your life is limited. You’re only going to work on a certain number of projects or at a number of places in your lifetime, which is why you need to make each one of them count. You owe it to yourself to take your ideas to a certain level. That’s where the magic happens.
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