Trent Mankelow

Trent is a local, born and bred in the Bay before setting out. He shared his journey through a Bachelor of Computing and Mathematical Sciences which lead him to realise that he had spent years learning what computers do, but not who they do it for.

Inspired by the book Human-Computer Interaction (Alan Dix, Janet Finlay, Gregory Abowd, Russell Beale) he delved into the then-fledgling field of ‘user experience design‘ and founded his company Optimal Usability with a friend Sam Ng and a cheque from his dad. From their first major project for Canterbury clothing, to hiring their first employee, selling the company to Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC), his major takeaway was to focus on the people.

Recognising small achievements and supporting the team, as well as having fun, help to build a culture and team that you want to work for and grow a passion for. They even captured team feedback and photos and published a book. Play seemed an important part of the Optimal culture, something that both Trent and Sam felt they needed to take seriously.

They have talked a lot and often to leaders and successful people, learning from them. Their early appointment of an External Advisory Board has driven them to consider decisions more carefully and listen to others to improve their business.

Trent also talked about the big jump into developing their own suite of products called Optimal Workshop (which they have cannily hung onto). He talked about the huge challenge and commitment this took (some $600k of internal investment) and the importance of splitting this off from the company. This was vital, he said, to prevent the team from being cannibalised by paying clients in the user experience side of the business. There was a real tension in having both ‘products’ and ‘services’ in the same part of their business.

Optimal was founded on the idea of designing for people, so company culture always played a huge part in his operations. Even upon selling to a multinational corporation, he wanted to be sure his former employees and workmates would have the chance to keep their culture alive, and that the people were still the focus.

Takeaway Points

  • Leaders have a disproportionately large effect on the culture (Mahler, Plsek, Price, Mugglestone)
  • An external advisory board or mentors are important.
  • Whimsy and fun are important, and have to come from the top.
  • Beer helps….
  • Passion trumps experience, but never stop learning and always work hard for what you want.
  • Don’t mix products and services, splitting them was the best decision we made.
  • It is people, it is people, it is people.

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