Leading Through Design: How this Finnish CEO is Transforming Business in Silicon Valley

Idean is a global UX design and strategy firm headquartered in Silicon Valley. The CEO, Risto Lähdesmäki, will be a panelist at GES 2016 for Master Class 7 — “Secrets of Silicon Valley” — on June 23rd, 2016.

We sat down with him to talk about how Idean was established in the United States, the transformative power of great user experience, and giving back to society through design.

Q: What inspired you to start Idean?

A: Through the end of the 90s and early 2000s, I got this really strong idea that I want to be building products. Wherever there’s a screen, we saw a lot of crappy stuff. Horrible things that people were not able to use. And I always thought, “Why couldn’t the user experience and the user interface be something people really want to use—and even feel emotionally connected with the product they are using?”

It was very clear for us that we don’t know everything as designers. We need to really understand people’s minds. As designers, we need to feel what users feel. For that reason, we started researching a lot. Whenever we had a project, we went to research those real people — people who are actually going to use the software or product we were designing.

And that’s kind of the secret element of our DNA. Not that secret, to be honest, but a very important element because we want to know what people need. And for those needs we design amazing experiences. So for the first three to four years we did that. Then, the key motivation to set up Idean became clear: we want to make the world a little bit better through our designs.

Q: Why did you decide that the US was the next step for Idean and for your family?

A: At that point, I had spent 15 years as a designer and building a design company—mainly in Finland, a little bit in Europe and Asia. And I got bored. I just simply got fed up. I was looking at our team — amazing designers inside of Idean — and I felt that we were not really utilizing all our superpowers at the level that I knew that we could.

So I was looking at the map and thinking: where is the most challenging environment for us? And it became very clear that Silicon Valley — Palo Alto, namely — would be the right place for me to fail…and big [laughs]. So if I want to fail with this thing, I’ll go where failing is totally fine.

So I packed my stuff. I booked my tickets without telling pretty much anyone except my wife that I’ll be away for a couple weeks. I flew to San Francisco and really started to build the network.

Back in those days it was super important for me that we get Idean into the right games. Like, the Olympic games of design. And that’s the reason I wanted to move here.

Q: How did you establish Idean in the United States?

A: I started traveling here, back and forth for a bit over a year — two weeks here, two weeks back in Finland. I was jet-lagged all the time and building the network. I was testing the waters to see if this was really a good match or if I’m just dreaming. It became very clear, very fast that we are needed here. We were doing extremely well and the talent we had was well received. At some point, we decided: all in.

I found three amazing designers from Idean to join me on my crazy journey to move here. We brought our families to California and set up our studio — first in Menlo Park, then in Palo Alto. That’s how it started. The first year I met 400 different clients. Little by little we got our first engagement, then the second engagement. We kept delivering amazing results because that’s the only way to survive here. If you don’t add value in this environment, you’ll be dead within a week. I didn’t want that to happen.

When we got our Palo Alto studio up and running, next we ramped up our Austin, TX studio. Then we expanded to San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. So we’re feeling pretty good about our footprint in the States. This all happened in the past two to three years. We’ve seen growth over 60% year by year over the last 4 years here in an industry where 20–30% per year would already be number one.

Q: What do you like about raising your family in the US?

A: First of all, to me and my family, this place really feels like home. At the end of the day I’m an entrepreneur. I live and breathe my company. Living in Finland — amazing country, amazing people, and many things to love about it — but it just wasn’t the right fit for me or my family.

I thought this would be an amazing chapter in our lives to move here and to see where I can take this company together with my team. It’s been an amazing experience for my whole family. I can see my four children really enjoying and living the kind of life that I would have loved to have when I was a kid. Specifically Silicon Valley — I love the speed. I love the energy. I love how fast things go forward. You go up or you go down overnight and that’s a truly amazing experience.

Q: As a company, what goals have you achieved since coming to the US?

A: Everything and even more. When I started traveling here, I had this crazy thought that I want to be building the most wanted design agency of our time. I had some numbers in my head, but that wasn’t really the driving force. To me, it was more like—we want to find clients and projects where we really can show how amazing we are.

If I look back, without moving here I don’t think we would even exist anymore. It has totally changed the level and the game we are in. So I’m thankful that we moved here and I’m super thankful we had such an amazing team supporting me and the whole operation coming over.

Q: What do you look for in an employee?

A: Idean is nothing but the people. That’s all we have. My principle is that we don’t own anyone. It’s my job and my responsibility to create an environment where people can be extremely good designers and developers.

So, when we started to hire people here in the States, I think that was the only scary moment. I knew as a fact that if we fail with first hires, the whole thing will be ruined in a few weeks or months. So we took an extremely careful approach. We went through a hundred people just to find the first one or two. While doing that, we built the process around it.

We have a very precise process. It’s not easy to get into Idean, which I’m kind of proud of. When I’m looking at candidates, I’m really looking at the attitude. That’s the key thing. You can change pretty much anything else. But the attitude…life is too short for that. Of course, we expect great talent and skills — those need to be there — but it all comes down to attitude. Could I work with this person for the next ten years and have fun while working through the ups and downs? That’s what I’m looking for.

If we focus on each other first and work as a team, nothing can stop us. What I want to build—and the kind of team that I’m happy to have—is where we drive change through design. And that’s the reason I think we exist—that’s the reason why we’ve been doing so great and will be doing great for years to come.

Q: How did Idean Design Academy start?

A: One aspect of Silicon Valley is that there’s a strong culture of giving back. I’ve received a lot of good will. I always try and think how we can give back as well — how we can be improving the people around us and the community we live in.

Then, about a year and half ago, I got this idea. We’re saying we’re the best in this industry, so why don’t we build something where we can start training other people to enjoy and experience what we experience every day?”

So, that’s how Idean Design Leadership Academy started. It’s a two-day, super hands-on, intensive design-training course where around 25 people get together from different countries and backgrounds. They’re coming to the Academy asking how to lead through design—what kind of tools and practices and processes there are. So we are teaching those practices very hands on — very concrete stuff that they can start applying right after the Academy.

After every single Academy we’ve run so far, we start receiving feedback the day after like, “Wow. I came back to my workplace, there are a hundred thousand people around me and I feel empowered. I feel like now, finally, I know how I can utilize design as a tool for change.”

Q: How does Idean Kids Academy fit into that vision?

A: Idean Design Academy is just a start for something we are envisioning and dreaming to build over time. My dream is to train 7 billion people through Idean Design Academy [laughs]. Somehow…we’ll see how it happens.

Another step is asking, “how about kids?” Everyone’s training children to code and to write applications. In schools, in tons of apps out there — and it’s very important. But to me, the missing link has always been the design. What about the thinking you can utilize through design?

For that reason, we’re now ramping up our Kids Academy. We start with a one-day session where we bring 15–20 children to experience design. To learn empathy. To learn tools they need in their lives so they can start thinking through design. We teach our version of design thinking, which is all about software and digital.

When children start coding they should know about design as well. It’s like drawing the blueprints first — thinking about what problem are we trying to solve with this software. Then, when you’ve done that rehearsal in your mind, you’re good to go write that app and become the next multi-billionaire.

Q: What initiated the Idean UX Summits?

A: Every company wants to do marketing. For us, the idea of marketing is not traditional. Every time we do something that we label as “marketing,” it has to add value.

The first thing we did here in the States was what we call Idean UX Summits. The idea was that, since I happen to know cool people — thought leaders in this industry — why not bring these people as speakers and have this intimate health-day session around user experience and design? Then we’ll bring around a hundred people to have a conversation with these thought leaders.

The first one we held in Menlo Park, and it was an amazing success. The best way for us to talk about us is not to talk about us at all. That’s another way for us to give back—but I believe when you give back you shall receive.

Q: Why did Idean produce the song, “Love Can Do”?

A: A couple years back we had an off-site with our team and I felt so empowered and so grateful when looking at the team that I thought, “How can I tell about our values and what I feel about who we are as a team?” I can write a white paper—boring. I can make a keynote presentation — boring. What if I created a song?

That idea came to my mind and I couldn’t sleep. I wanted to make a real song about who we are as a people, what kind of a leader I want to be, what kind of people I want to work with. With my good friend Andreas, we met some people in LA. One thing led to another and suddenly we had one of the best songwriters [Bernie Herms] writing the song. We had the amazing Joshua Ledet. A hundred different things came together and then we had our song, “Love Can Do.”

That’s our way of sharing something we believe in. Love is the best way to lead your company and your people. It doesn’t always mean that all things are happy and shiny and good; but at the end of the day, when you love what you do and you believe in what you do, you’ll win all the battles. So that song is kind of our anthem.

Q: Why is user experience and design thinking so important for businesses in the US?

A: As we’re focused on user experience, customer experience — the experience layer of digital services — it has become the most important way for companies to stay relevant. The only way to make your product stand out is through the experience.

The world is filled with horrible, nasty software which literally ruins people’s lives every day, makes them feel unmotivated and like they don’t want to do their work. Our job is to remove that crap. It’s simple. You’ve got all these screens everywhere. In some cases, you don’t even have a screen anymore — you control it with your voice or your brainwaves. Still, all that matters is what value it adds, how people feel, what kind of relationship you build between your user and your product. That’s why user experience is the most critical factor for any company out there. I totally believe that companies who don’t invest in UX will die. Period.

We’re so happy to see the transformation happening. The reason I was able to move here was because in Silicon Valley, CEOs truly get why user experience is key for their success. The rest of the world is a little bit behind, but here in the States you have companies investing and making bold moves—even killing products that don’t really provide the experience at all and ramping up new products. That’s very exciting to us. We want to be part of those transformations. Not just one product here, one product there—but bringing the whole thinking to big companies and renewing the culture.

As we’re lucky to work with top Fortune 500 companies, there are a lot of old companies that are a little bit grey. Now they’re suddenly reinventing themselves as C-level and top management is finally realizing, “Wow, we have all these assets. People just have a really horrible experience. Let’s change it.” It’s easy. You can change it. You just call me! [laughs]

Q: What’s the future of Idean?

A: World domination. [laughs] Why not? I always tell the team we want to be the most wanted design agency of our time. When it comes to digital and software, this is the right time and the right place to be.

Today, we’re close to 200 people and growing. We’re going to introduce something really cool over the next year or two. We want to disrupt this industry and we want to reinvent ourselves as well. So…wait and see!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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