Telling Product Stories with Adam Lisagor of Sandwich

Ep 15

Sep 06, 2023 • 56 min
Adam Lisagor, Founder of Sandwich Video, shares what he’s learned about the nature of storytelling, about how to zoom out to tell the story of your product, understanding the emotional valence of our work, when pre-visualization and storyboarding does and doesn’t pay off, spotting great talent, the value of making pretty good decisions quickly, learning how to let go (a little bit) as a founder, execution-centric leadership vs. results-centric leadership, what kinds of products he likes to invest in, and making people glad to have worked with you.

Allen: Welcome to It Shipped That Way, where we talk to product leaders about the lessons they’ve learned helping build great products and teams. I’m Allen Pike and today’s interview is with Adam Lisagor. Adam is the founder of Sandwich, the best darn video production company out there. Adam’s team at Sandwich has introduced countless startups to the world, including Slack, Square and Figma, and I’m so excited to have him on the show today. Welcome, Adam.

Adam: Thank you so much, Allen. I’m really excited to be here. And yeah, Sandwich is me, I am Sandwich. We used to be known more as Sandwich Video, as the complete sort of object pair, and we rebranded as just Sandwich a few years ago and as of late I’ve been sort of leaning back into the old nostalgia of Sandwich Video because there’s something sort of much more tech and product focused about it that I feel like we tried to leave almost trying to grow out of it like we were more of an ad agency. But you know what? I’ve just discovered over the past year or so that I really want to return to my roots because a product is where I thrive.

Allen: And video is your thing.

Adam: Yeah, and it’s where I come from. It’s where I met my community of product makers like yourself. Why ignore that? I just want to embrace it. I love product. It’s just who I am.

Allen: Well, me too. You’re in the right place then on this show to talk about it. I’d love to get into talking about both how to tell the story of the products that we’re working on as well as some of how that can inform the product work that we’re doing and the decisions we make on our product. But I feel we should give you a chance first to give a little podcast soundbite version of the Adam story so far so people have some context. I’m sure there some folks already know who you are, but for the folks that don’t or need a refresher, how do you like to tell that story?

Adam: Yeah, the easiest way to start is just as kind of in the format of an origin story. I had gone to film school, I was always tech obsessed, huge Apple nerd. I worked in visual effects for six years and sort of cut my teeth working in the movie industry in a post-production capacity doing some commercials, editing, visual effects, compositing. But during that time, I was just becoming more fascinated and ingrained in the culture of people who were making the web and were making apps in the newly launched App Store. So I was always just right on top of that as it was developing, and so I got lucky enough to become friends with some of the people in our community who are making that stuff, some of the notables. And they embraced me I think because I was an outsider as a storyteller, as a filmmaker, but I still kind of spoke the language natively to designers and product makers and even engineers. My first foray outside of the context of the industry that I came from was that I tried to make an app that was a creative writing tool, a Twitter client essentially, called Birdhouse that was for us nerds who wanted to joke around and make each other laugh, to have a tool for capturing our drafts and saving them and publishing them from the app itself because nothing like that had existed yet. There wasn’t even copy and paste on the iPhone at this point.

Allen: It’s hard to remember how long ago that was.

Adam: Oh my gosh, it was such early days. And just recently I pulled out my iPhone version one just to kind of appreciate it as an object again, and I had recalled that in the period of time, I think it was like six months between when the iPhone was announced in 2007 to when it was actually available, launched and in stores, I had fashioned a fabricated mock-up of the thing, to scale, with a printed out face and front and back and I kept it in my pocket with me for all of that time because I wanted to know the feeling of carrying it around. I wanted to embrace what it was going to mean in my life as part of my ritual, my everyday carry so to speak. And I still had that as well. So I have those two objects side by side. We made that app, Birdhouse, me and Cameron Hunt, friend, designer, developer, and then as part of launching that app on the App Store, I made a little video because that was something that I knew how to do, and the video ended up capturing more attention than the app did and drew in some awesome attention from startups that were developing at the time and even big companies. So I just started getting inbound interest from a bunch of companies making cool new products like Flipboard and Jawbone and Square and even Genentech to come and make a similar video for them because they were working on similar products. So then that just begat this whole company that I was able to accidentally start up and involve, at this point, thousands of people in the film community to help and tell these stories. So I’ve gotten to simultaneously embrace both of these fascinations, the filmmaking origin and the tech product origin and fold both of them in equal amounts into my daily life in a way that just never stops making me happy.

Allen: I love it. And that’s one of the OG origin stories of a product effectively is you tried making one thing and then you had this side thing that was part of that, and then the market said, “Actually, we want that thing. The side thing is the thing we want.”

Adam: Absolutely. I’d be curious proportionately how often that happens because it seems to be like that’s how most great things start. You set out to do one thing, takes you in a surprising new direction, you adapt, most importantly is that you’re open to adapting to that new opportunity and then if you’re lucky, you adapt again and then you adapt again and not because you keep failing, but because you keep seeing new opportunity because that’s how the world works is the puck doesn’t only go in one direction, it keeps changing directions and you kind of skate there and you skate the next place.

Allen: Well, also fundamentally if you’re trying to do something totally new, you’re going to fail too, right?

Adam: Totally.

Allen: At least that’s my observation and personal experience. New things are hard.

Adam: Oh, absolutely. You can’t prescribe what’s going to happen,

Allen: So I love that as a sort of recap origin, and so since then you’ve built out this studio and you have with 15-ish people, and that’s the same class as Steamclock, which is cool. Different industry, we’re building apps and products, but similar kind of size and mentality. The obvious place to start in terms of topics to talk about is telling stories because that’s what you do, and I think a lot of people who are in the product development world, whether they’re product managers or their founders or whatever their role is, struggle in a way that maybe is either surprising to people who… I mean it’s not surprising to you, you’ve seen it for 13 years, but people often will struggle telling the story of their own product. They’re very excited about it, they’re waist deep in it or neck deep in it, they know all 27 features and why they’re there and why they’re so great. But that’s not a story, it’s like a duffel bag full of facts that you can just open up and you’re like-

Adam: Yeah, it’s an object. Yeah.

Allen: What approaches can those of us who are waist deep in our own products take to zoom out and tease out what kind of compelling stories we might be able to tell people who are not yet familiar with this great thing that we’re building instead of just saying, “Here’s the 27 things”?

Adam: Yeah, there’s a few ways of formulating this answer and I’ll probably hone in on two of them. But one way of thinking about it is that story is a model for an experience, for lived experience. Story is a way of condensing a lived experience that you want to share and connect with another person who might have had a similar experience, who might be having a similar experience. Story is a construction that connects the two of you so that you understand what that experience might be in common. I think another way of formulating it is that people who build products often consider the product as an object and struggle to consider the product as a subject, and subject in the sense that there’s a perspective involved and there’s a starting point and a journey. Maybe a third way of encapsulating this is that an object is sort of how something looks and appears and a story is how something feels. And I consider that as sort of one of the most important core principles of my work is it’s so important to convey how a product feels when you use it. And really in the context of a product, that is how to tell the story because a good product makes you feel a certain way, it will change you in some way. It’ll change the way you interact with the world. It’ll change the way that you see yourself. It’ll change your capacity to do things or to know things and all of those are really big things. Those are really big feelings. So I think that some people maybe don’t have as much of a knack for storytelling because they’re not so accustomed to paying attention to how things make them feel necessarily or having the language to express how those things make them feel. We all feel things, everybody feels. We have that universal and a lot of times we feel the same things. But then storytellers, I think, have this innate need to take those feelings and then express them, translate them into language because language is how other people know what that feeling is. So I think that’s what I would say product makers should strive to do in a very abstract way.

Allen: Do you feel like being in the product and having maybe worked on it for years makes it easier or harder for people who are in the product to put themselves into the feeling of what somebody who’s new to it may be feeling or to kind of envision what feeling they’re trying to evoke as opposed to maybe the feeling you have once you’re many years into something?

Adam: Yeah, great question. I think that it’s probably a lot harder do that when you’ve been with the product for a long time because what’s fun about something new is that it surprises you and when something surprises you, the way I’ve heard it phrased scientifically is that you are forced to update your prediction models of the world. Because we all go through life sort of predicting how things are going to turn out in every microsecond as a means of survival. What is going to taste good and what is going to kill us? We predict those things along the way and we predict them based on the history of our past. So something that surprises you means you get to update your predictive model in a way that now you have new, fresh information for what’s going to kill you or what’s going to taste good. And that’s why we get this jolt of dopamine every time something surprises us and delights us in a good way is like, “Oh, ding, ding ding. We get to update our predictive model.” So when you’re building something new, it’s like first love. It’s like a crush. It’s like you are newly exposed to something that gives you existence that the world is pleasurable to you in a new and exciting way. And naturally we’re just going to pay attention to those things. We’re going to pay attention to our own reactions to those things and we’re going to strive to translate those things into language so that we know what we’re feeling in that moment. I think that that’s a natural impulse. And I think that storytellers are just people who say, “Oh, not only is it exciting to update my predictive model, it’s also exciting to find the right words to capture updating my predictive model.” Some people really love that, almost like engineering.

Allen: Yeah, I love the finding the right words part is probably my favorite, definitely one of my favorite things about marketing is that going over a tiny micro piece of copy or a script or something and thinking, “Is this even quite the right way to say it right? How does this feel when you say the difference between two synonyms?” Or something like that, which sometimes drives my team a little bit nuts that I’m, “Okay, let’s improvise this for a seventh time.”

Adam: Oh, totally. But you got to do it because it makes a difference and that’s what’s fun and delightful about being a human. I’ve been thinking about this a lot in regards to language models. Language is such that if the only goal was to communicate an idea, we would always only ever use the same words to communicate that idea. But instead, we have infinite permutations of ways to communicate that idea, and so we want to surprise ourselves in new and surprising ways and permutations of communicating that idea because that’s fun. That’s play for us.

Allen: I’d never thought about this interaction and between how large language models like GPT and surprise in communication because if you look at especially GPT-4 which is the newest, greatest as of the time of this recording, and in six minutes probably there’ll be another thing, part of the times that are most memorable when you interact with it is when it surprises you. And I’ve never connected that to the observation that when you’re trying to communicate something to somebody, if you say it in a cliche way that they’ve heard a hundred times, it actually tends to just kind of roll over them and not get absorbed because it’s like noise.

Adam: It’s noise, yeah.

Allen: Which is part of what marketing is like, “How do I say something maybe that they’ve already heard before, but in a way that actually lands because they haven’t heard it said that way before?” And that part of the sort of joy or, I guess, horror depending on your perspective of GPT and things like that is that it can at times surprise us in a delightful way, which is not the case with previous five years ago versions of language generation.

Adam: Totally. That’s why when people try to describe GPT or a language model as a calculator of words, it doesn’t hit the mark because a calculator will always repeatably give you the same result given the same input, but a language model processes words based on the context of its environment and its environment is always changing. And if you start to dig into how language models actually work and how they encode words into numbers and then give different numbers different weights so that they’re attracted to each other based on their similarity of meaning, that will work just as physics in the real world will work is that physical properties work in relation to their environment in the context of their environment. And I’m really into this idea that ideas have a shape, ideas have a shape and a force and an energy to them, and so two ideas are going to attract to each other and form a shape in one point in time given a set of inputs different to how they’ll attract each other different point in time given the same set of inputs. I really love the shape of things. Ideas having shape is just top of mind for me right now.

Allen: Do you go as far as to try to express terms for like, “This is a spiky idea or a round idea”, or am I taking you too literally?

Adam: No, no, no. That’s a great thought. I don’t personally do that. I think that the reason spiky and soft and stuff like that, the reason those words apply is because the shape of ideas across our different senses are similar to each other, right? Spiky is the same as hot, is the same as sharp. That alone should tell us the way that ideas have similar form, similar shapes in relation to each other even across different disciplines. So I think the goal of humanity being to form connection and to figure out some sort of universal principles how things are connected to each other in useful ways, it’s so fun to figure out what are the associative connections between disparate things. I just love that. Wow, we went into a very abstract place very quickly.

Allen: Yeah, but I love it.

Adam: Synesthesia or whatever it is, why does one word very descriptively fit a certain concept and another one doesn’t? Because a word can have a sound and the sound can have a shape and the shape can match the shape of another descriptive word, yeah.

Allen: Well even the sounds of words, there’ve been some research where they’ll tell people nonsense words and then they’ll ask them about the meaning of those words and then you’ll get consistent answers. The famous one was like, “This is a boba and this is a kiki.” And then you have the shapes and then they’re like, “Oh, no, no, definitely kiki is the spiky one and boba is the round one.” And people generally agree with that.

Adam: Yeah, I saw that there was a brand guy doing that talk and it was like, “Which one of these is a citrus drink brand?”

Allen: So moving a layer back up of abstraction or back down, I don’t know what direction, if abstract is up or down-

Adam: To the real world, yeah.

Allen: We have this goal, as we were talking about, of telling the stories of the products that we’re building and the emotions behind them and how does it make you feel. And so I’m curious, you’ve been at this for 14 years, you’ve been telling the stories of all sorts of products. You’ve seen some really great famous successful products. You’ve probably seen some less successful products in that time that you did not make videos for.

Adam: Sure. There are a few.

Allen: Maybe passed on.

Adam: Oh, I have made videos, have made plenty of videos for non-successful products, yeah.

Allen: I’m curious what perspective that’s given you in terms of how the need to eventually tell that story to people who aren’t yet familiar with your product could or should or might inform those of us that are making products today. Because you are interacting with people at the point they already have the product. Typically, I assume, they’re not at the whiteboarding stage, they’re not at the early, early prototype, they’re like, “Okay, now we have a marketing budget.” But thinking in terms of how you’re building this product and how are you putting it together and how are you forming it basically, have you developed any thoughts around how the need to eventually tell that story in a simple crisp way and not just, “Here’s 27 features”, should or could inform people’s product work?

Adam: Yeah, absolutely. It’s the same principle as storytelling. I think that you as a product maker want to pay very close attention to how you want your user to feel when they’re touching every single part of the product. And I’ll give you two examples. One is very near to me because right now I’m doing a startup and I’m building a product. And just before this call I was on with our UX designer and we were having some high level philosophical questions about the product. And he asked me, “What do you want people to feel? What are some descriptive words? What do you want people to feel when they’re using the product?” And my product happens to be in my industry, my category of filmmaking, and one thing that I realized when I became a director is that the director’s job is not to make the right decision along the way. The director’s job is to make a decision and then move on to the next decision. And the reason that making a decision is the most important thing is because there are so many people around you that are waiting on you in order to do the next part of their work. And this applies to any leader, whether creative or business or anything. People are relying on you to confidently make a decision so that they can proceed to their next task or choice. So I realized that what I want to imbue into my product is that users feel like the product is making a confident decision on their behalf or helping them make a confident decision. It doesn’t have to be the right decision, but it has to be made with confidence in some authority and awareness of the environment. So that ends up being kind of a thoughtful perspective when building a product is I want my users to feel cared for, I want my users to feel like if they press a button, it’s going to do something that’s not disastrous for them or whatever it is. So that’s one example of a condition in my category. But backing up, some years ago I was talking to somebody young who was looking to get into copywriting in advertising, and we were just talking about, “How do you do this?” Because when you’re young, just maybe you talk to somebody you admire and you go, “How did you start? And then what do you do?”

Allen: You’re like, “Well, you need to go back to 2007 and get an iPhone.”

Adam: Exactly, exactly. A lot of my tips and insights are not very instructive because they rely on being friends with Merlin Mann and Jon Kruber and then getting early access to cool startup. That’s not going to happen for most people. So I was in the right place at the right time. But what I did come up with for this young person, which was a really good conversation, was like, “Okay, let’s imagine a product that exists and then think about whether it was just released and how would you think about the story and how does it make you feel?” And what I came up with was a stoplight, like a traffic light, right?

Allen: Okay.

Adam: The traffic light doesn’t exist and then suddenly you see a link to a landing page that it’s announcing the traffic light and this is what it does, and these are some of the features, and most importantly, let’s get to the core of how it makes you feel. And that was a useful exercise because how a traffic light makes you feel is a sense of order, control, safety and power, empowerment that when you get that green light, you’re allowed to proceed and you can do so safely. It was a longer conversation. We even came up with some brand language around it and some marketing copy and it was really fun. But I would say that as an exercise for product makers is step back from the product that you’ve been involved in building for so long, that intimately every line of code and every draft of every feature and come to it with fresh eyes as the new user, as though you’ve just been exposed to this the thing or this product or this feature, and what is it that you want somebody who’s brand new to it to feel along the way, unconsciously or consciously.

Allen: What’s your take on this habit that some companies do, and I know Amazon at least used to do this, where they’ll have a press release they’ll write for the product before they make the product of like, “Okay, this is what’s going to happen. This thing is coming out and it’s going to make this way easier and it’s going to have these benefits to you.” Have you seen people use that habit in a useful way? And what are your thoughts on it?

Adam: Yeah, I mean even I did it. I did a couple of videos for eBay for their R&D team that was dreaming up cool products on the roadmap that didn’t exist yet, and they hired me to make a commercial for these things. Typically, in my category, I would call those vision videos. But vision videos are more often like these anthemic statements of what’s coming, what the future is. I’ve done plenty of those. But these ones specifically for eBay were imagining that the product already exists and now I’m just going to demo it for you using the tools at my disposal. And that was interesting. That was this really cool guy leading that team whose name was Dane, and he was writing a book and a whole set of materials on previs and previs is short for previsualization. Previs is more, I think, connected to my previous industry visual effects. A lot of filmmakers will do previs, basically really rough animated CG renders of all their shots to cut everything together so that they can feel what it’s going to look like before they actually do the thing. But as a product maker within eBay, he was forming this whole sort of structured practice around previs, and that’s why he came to me and we did essentially a previs for one of these products that eBay was going to be working on. And I think it’s very useful. Is it something that I do as a product maker? No, not necessarily because I’m a very lazy person and I like to conserve energy. So I find that I don’t have enough energy to do dreamy dreams of fake placeholder things that are going to maybe exist and then adapt along the way. I tend to like to work with real materials in order to do the work. I don’t like to do a lot of work that’s not going to be used in the final thing.

Allen: Do you storyboard out when you’re doing a video though?

Adam: Yeah, perfect example. We don’t unless we absolutely have to.

Allen: Unless you need to for approval or something?

Adam: Yeah, clients really like to have storyboards sometimes. Often clients in the tech context, they say storyboards on those intro calls because they know that word.

Allen: Right, they’ve seen some documentary about Pixar.

Adam: Exactly. And they just think that storyboard is part of everything that you do. It’s totally not. A lot of times you just write a script and then you shoot the script, or you write a script and then you do a shot list based on the script so that the crew knows what shots need to be captured and the first AD can plan what order they will be captured. Those are very important for organizational structure and for strategic planning. Storyboarding, in my world, it can be a luxury. It’s great actually when you have it. But it’s resource intensive and sometimes it’s too prescriptive. One important part of our process is before the shoot day will get all of the key people from the crew together in the location, in the set and it’s called a tech scout. And during the tech scout everybody talks through the shoot and talks through the shots that you’re going to get and talks through the camera angles and you sort of plan where the camera is going to go at every phase because not only is that important for where to put the camera and the lights, it’s also important for where to put the crew and the cast and the client and you have to know where all these organizational pieces are going to go. So that’s why you do that strategic planning during the tech scout. And then often, we’ll just use our phones and we’ll shoot mocked up frames with crew just standing in for the talent and those are called photo boards, and then those photo boards will be on the thumbnail on the shoot schedule. So yeah, that in itself is a form of previs, it’s just like a low lift way of doing previs.

Allen: It’s difficult when you talk to people who build products on a three person or a 10 person startup team versus a 10,000 person corporation, and the amount of previs… Previs becomes, it’s not the term that lot product teams use, but previs ends up being more and more and more important the larger organization just as a alignment mechanism. If you have a 10,000 person organization, you don’t need all 10,000 people to be on board, but you need some chain of people up from you up to some decision maker and budget holders and things like that. And then other departments that have other things that they may or may not have on their mind other than this thing that you want to rally people in a common direction. Whereas if you’re all metaphorically in the same room, whether or not you physically are, but if you’re a one digit number of people on a team, often you can have a couple of people be like, “This is going to be the thing.” And then people are, “Great, let’s do it.” And then they actually do do it.

Adam: Yeah, which is so fun. That spirit of that kind of making is so fun and great because you can take risks, you can experiment. Not everybody’s so fearful of accountability and often great things are made that way. But also, if you have the right tools available to get everybody together on a shared vision, that can also be a great way to do it.

Allen: So we’ve touched a bit, a couple of times about the team that’s required. You’d mentioned, I think, at one point 1,000 people that you’ve worked with various levels and depths in doing all this work over the years.

Adam: It’s 7,000, we’ve tallied it recently for a deck I was working on. It’s around 7,000 freelance production people that we’ve brought in on our stuff over the years.

Allen: Which is amazing, so congratulations on that. I find one of the common topics that we have in this show, and I find always really interesting to talk to different leaders about how they think about it is how people think about talent and people and the team. And any leader worth their salt will say it’s important. We know it’s important. But how do you think about finding great people to work with, setting them up for success and maybe even letting them spread their wings to the degree that that’s feasible?

Adam: Oh my god, it’s so crucial and I love when it happens. It’s fun to spot the talent before the talent necessarily knows that they’ve been spotted. It’s fun to find those people that are sort of early in their career and that doesn’t necessarily mean young, it just means early. Early could become in the context of a second career, a second or third career. But spotting people who have something to contribute and a different perspective on things that you’ve never seen before and then the motivation to do something different, I love that. That’s what I look for in people that I’m working with is the ones that have just that energy to think through a problem and a little bit of confidence to bring that approach to you and say, “I don’t know if this is the right thing, but you’re the boss and this is the way I was thinking about it. So what do you think about this?” And even if they’re wrong, even if their solution was probably not the most successful one, I love that spirit of taking a risk, thinking about it differently and inventing something because that’s fun for you, not because it was a task to complete, not because you had a job to do, certainly not because you’re putting in the time in order to make the paycheck, but because solving the problem was fun to you. Those are the people that I look for to add value in my team, whatever it is. God, that’s how all great things are made. People that just say, “I see the problem. I know what it is. I see it in front of me and this is how I think I’m going to solve it. What do you think?” I love it.

Allen: Rather than waiting for maybe a consensus or something like that.

Adam: Yeah, and sometimes that’s out of fear and that comes earlier in your career too when you’re afraid that your boss is going to get upset if you suggest something and it’s out of place or it’s not your place. Which don’t work for that boss. Sometimes it really is because you’re so fresh, you’re so green to it that you don’t even know what the language is behind solving a problem. I was certainly there. I remember my first internship when I was still in film school, it was a long time ago, I was working for this documentarian, we were doing a medical industrial and we were in somebody’s hospital room with a camera crew and everything. He was interviewing this subject and he was doing it very well, very gracefully. He was an older guy, he’d been doing it for decades. And he had a 35 millimeter film camera because he always took it everywhere to just capture some stills that might be used on the marketing materials or whatever. And here I am, a kid in film school, when we were done with the interview, he said, “Okay, take some pictures of the subject.” And I grabbed the camera. And I was in a photo class in school and I must’ve taken 40 seconds adjusting the focus and making sure the exposure was right, and my boss was like, “What the hell are you doing? Give me that.” And he just took the camera out of my hands and started clicking away like a photojournalist. And it was in that moment I realized how much I had to learn, I guess. A level of expertise. That’s another core principle is this idea of expertise. Once you’ve been doing it for a little longer, you realize that you can make more decisions quicker and adjust. You can correct for errors very quickly and instinctively so you don’t have to take 40 seconds to adjust the focus and the exposure. You can step in and make micro adjustments as you go and iterate very quickly, and that’s expertise is making decisions quickly, knowing exactly in advance the micro adjustments you need to make while you’re doing it and then performing, solving the problem, moving on.

Allen: The ability to make decisions quickly and move on is something that I think you were touching on this before that often as a leader, your biggest value you can have is not to make the perfect decision and spend some arbitrary amount of time making a perfect decision, but making a decision. And then ideally it can be adjusted later if you haven’t permanently doomed everyone off a cliff. That’s something that I hadn’t really appreciated very well until my team got to a certain size. When we were small, I could spend probably an unreasonable amount of time thinking about certain things and we survived. But you get to a certain point where I can’t make every decision and I certainly can’t make the perfect of every decision because just I am one human being with a certain amount of time, and so obviously delegating is part of that. But a big part of it is, like you say, is the faster that you can make a decision, the faster we can switch our attention to a more important decision or execution on a direction that we’ll actually learn something from instead of sitting in a seventh meeting with nine people debating something.

Adam: Totally. All of that waste. Yeah, just move quickly and with confidence. I agree. And yeah, the ability to delegate to people that you trust, not necessarily to make the exact same decision that you would, but to make an equally informed expert decision that you know will put everybody forward in a good direction, that’s invaluable.

Allen: How has that path been for you as someone, founder of the company, at times the face of the company in a more literal way than a lot of founders of their companies are? You’ve gotten to a point now with 16 people and thousands of people work for you. Obviously you’re not in every decision, you’re not vetting and green-lighting every single check of everything. But I’m sure also you still have, or I assume, if you’re anything like me or most founders, that you still have an emotional investment on a quality bar and these sorts of things.

Adam: Of course.

Allen: So how has that path looked like for you in terms of giving people more and more freedom? And where have been the limits and boundaries and challenges of that for you as you’ve attempted to give people the ability to make decisions that you might not make?

Adam: Totally. I mean, it’s an attempt, right? I don’t think I’m going to get it right on the first try. But that’s where I am right now. I’m starting another company and part of starting another company is I can’t give equal care and a focus to both companies. Something’s got to give and the new company needs most of my attention. But luckily, I’ve spent so many years with these people building up these creative practices and these best guiding principles that I trust them. And what I’ve learned is that good things happen when you let go a little bit. Not all the way. I still need to be there. If nothing else, it’s my fiduciary duty as though I had shareholders. It’s my fiduciary duty to the financial health of my company to still care about what comes out of it.

Allen: Well, no one wants to work for someone who doesn’t care.

Adam: No, totally. Yeah, that’s something that I’m incredibly fearful of is that anybody on my team at Sandwich thinks that suddenly they become the ignored child or something, is that I kind of think of it the way when Steve Jobs split off to work on the Mac, I’m sure his Apple team kind of felt neglected in some way.

Allen: They did.

Adam: But of course he cared. Of course he cared. And the reason he gave himself that freedom, I’m sort of speculating, but some of the reason he gave himself that freedom is because he knew that to some degree they had it. The Apple, it was on its way, it was it doing okay. And now it was his time to go and investigate somewhere else.

Allen: I haven’t written or talked too much about this yet, but I’ve been on a similar path, as you know, of running this product studio for 12, 13 years, and this team here has been doing such great work that I am lucky enough that I have been able to shift more and more of my attention to building the next thing, building a product. But it brings up so many challenges and questions around things that I used to do that were unsustainable and was it even important for me to be part of this decision anyway? For 13 years, I’ve been the one who’s decided what the illustration, not personally, not mind by line, but I’ve been in the feedback loop for, “Well, what does this illustration look like? And what does this marketing thing?” I’m proofreading the blog post before they go out and it’s like, “Maybe that’s not important.”

Adam: Totally. I’m right there with you. Yeah, I think about all of the things that I was so confident in my need to make that decision that easily they could have gone better if I wasn’t involved in it. So there’s that opening yourself up to that opportunity to take the risk, separate yourself and have it go maybe even better than if you were there in it.

Allen: One of the stereotypical business things you’ll get as a founder or leader who is giving more independence to your team is to shift your attention from the details, like you and I have think a bit of an instinct to want to, to make sure those details are hitting a quality bar and shifting your attention more towards impact or results, a more quantified way of looking at, “Is this thing succeeding?” Which gives the team that’s executing for you more latitude to achieve those results without necessarily having to wonder, “Well, how would Adam do this? Would he make this thing purple or not?” Have you moved in that direction much? Have you been experimenting with it? Is that just kind of like a pipe dream, MBA speak, or I don’t know, how do you think about that?

Adam: Yeah, I’m not like an MBA kind of a thinker. I forget the words you used for it, but I’m not thinking big picture. I’m thinking very big picture in terms of the story of my company, but I’m not thinking big picture in terms of results oriented. I have no idea what’s going to generate more results in the marketplace, I have zero idea. And I don’t have very much interest in it other than I want my company to survive. I’m the type of person who thinks that the execution is going to drive the results, and so it’s more in my interest to focus and obsess more about the execution than the results, I guess. Does that make sense?

Allen: It makes total sense because I’m the same way, except I’m increasingly in a position where if I’m spending less time executing and have the team executing on my own behalf, I found, and it’s I think a stereotypical challenge, I found it harder to be in the loop in terms of helping ensure… When you’re delegating to someone or you’re giving someone freedom, you necessarily need to give them more accountability as well. If I’m going to say, “You’re going to be leading up this thing and you’re going to be making bigger decisions about it”, there has to be some sort of expectation of, “And the decisions will be good.” Or what does good mean?

Adam: Yeah, totally. Yeah, step up to the plate. It’s big kid stuff. So I totally agree. Hopefully a leader has fostered that kind of a culture. The jury’s out yet still. I don’t know whether-

Allen: These stories are being written still.

Adam: Yeah, they still are. And when I say big picture thinking, I think it’s my job to decide, because everything is changing so swiftly all the time in tech, in media, so we can go in different directions and it’s my job to sort of steer the company on a course or on a new course and identify new opportunities and then say, “That one is worth pursuing because there could be something big in that direction.” That’s my favorite part of having a company. It always has been.

Allen: That’s strategy, in MBA speak that’s strategy.

Adam: Totally, yeah.

Allen: That’s the biggest founder leader input is like, “Okay, we’ve got a bunch.” Of options helping figure out where the ones big opportunities are and where are the ones that are maybe a distraction.

Adam: So that’s it. I love strategy. I love creative strategy, and apparently, I love business strategy too.

Allen: Maybe this is a perfect line from this idea of creative and product strategy because you’ve been getting more and more into this loop with startups, which you’ve accepted equity over the years for a portion of payment for some of the videos that you’ve done over the years, and that has done okay for you, as I understand it, with some of the great startups that you’ve worked with. And you’re doing this more intentionally now setting out a program and saying, “Hey, we’re Sandwich or Sandwich Video and you can work with us in this way.” And making more explicit. But do you see yourselves as evaluating these businesses that are applying to this program that you have, do you evaluate them similarly to the way that a VC or an investor would, and that you’re maybe trying to just gauge like, “Okay, is this going to be a billion-dollar company or not?” And then you just use the best guesses and maybe a spreadsheet to try and figure that out? Or are you looking at it from a more story storytelling, marketing perspective because the lens that you come on things from?

Adam: I think equal. I think a traditional investor is going to mostly look at the business opportunity, which in itself is a cool story. But as a filmmaker, I’m looking for, “What is going to be the best story to tell? And by investing creative capital, so to speak, into this company, I need to make sure that there’s going to be some value in my creative capital and I need to make sure that I’m given the best material with which to spend that creative capital.” So equal parts. I love telling a great story, but I also love telling a great story because this great story can make a good business. I think investors intuitively know that a company with a great story is going to have a stronger chance of being a great business, but they’re not in the place to help tell that story necessarily. But we very literally are in a good place to help tell that story, which is why this model makes sense for us.

Allen: Something that comes to mind for me, I’m curious your take on this, is that I could see an argument either way for your leaning towards working with startups that on one hand, if you could think of a startup that’s just like a pure marketing play, like the famous Grey Goose story where they started with the idea of, “Let’s make a vodka company.” “Oh, okay, where should we make the vodka?” “Well, I’ve heard there’s these rocks in Champagne, France that we could filter our vodka through.” “Okay, do that.” A totally manufactured thing and with marketing first and then, “Oh, I guess we need to make some vodka at the end.” Where marketing, of course, made the company, which is very financially successful. So I could see an argument for you as storytellers to leaning towards marketing centric, almost a commoditized things where the marketing makes a difference. But on the other hand, I could see you making an argument that where storytelling skill is going to make the most difference is if you have something that’s more ambitious and more surprising and more unusual. It’s like, “This is fusion power for your backyard. You wouldn’t think that’s possible, but trust me, here’s how it’s going to work.” So do you have a leaning one way or another? How do you tend to interpret where you can have the highest impact, I guess?

Adam: As an investor, I prefer the companies that feel like the solution was right there in front of you the whole time. It’s a very clear, digestible problem that is easy to put into words, and the solution was new and different and inventive, but it seems in retrospect so obvious, those are my favorite. The pie in the sky fusion in your backyard, those are harder for me to swallow because they often involve a technical understanding in terms of the inventiveness of the execution that isn’t necessarily in my wheelhouse. It’s been fun to see the applicants in the program that you mentioned, we called it the Breadwinner Fellowship. They’re all, my favorite ones, they’re solving a problem that’s very easy to put into words to wrap your head around, and they’re solving it in a unique and inventive way that in retrospect makes so much sense. And all they had to do was go and find the resources to make that solution happen. And now it’s a business and it’s a very clear story to tell. I love those. Simplicity is everything. To me that’s inherent in the product that I’m working with too, and everybody I’ve told about it in my industry has been like, “Yeah, this probably should have existed a long time ago.” And it just hasn’t yet. So yeah, that’s my favorite type of story to tell, my favorite type of business to invest in.

Allen: Yeah, it makes a lot of sense. Simplicity is one of the things I always go back to when I’m talking about marketing things, whether it’s a single page or an entire brand or whatever it is working on marketing wise is I’m almost always, you have this strong temptation to add more, “Oh, but it can also do this and it can also do this, and there’s this cool thing.” But at the end of the day, people are going to remember two or three words about your thing.

Adam: Totally. Or the other mistake is trying to tell too much story to too many people instead of telling one small story that can apply to everybody.

Allen: “If you’re the bookkeeper, then this. If you’re the accountant, then this. If you’re the CEO then this. If you’re the factory worker, then this.” It’s like, “Okay, what?”

Adam: It’s a lot. And you would think that by now, by this many years of tech marketing, people would know better, but you still see seasoned marketing people making the same types of mistakes.

Allen: Okay, well, that makes a lot of sense and I’m really curious to see what comes out of these companies. I think you and I have talked a bit before, and I feel this is where the smart money is right now, that this moment we’re in 2023, there’s a lot of building going on and there’s some really awesome products and startups being founded right now, which just tends to happen when the froth recedes and there’s a bit of a reset. People get heads down and start making stuff that is already great but we don’t yet know it is great, but once it hits its stride in the next two to four years, we’re going to be seeing some really cool stuff.

Adam: Absolutely. I love this time. I call it build mode, and this is where all the value is created and this is when it’s exciting to be around technology.

Allen: Me too. So last question, I want to talk briefly about mistakes because that’s how we learn, they’re fun, they make good stories. So I’m curious if you can think of any memorable mistakes you’ve made that you’d be willing to share on a podcast that you’ve learned something from?

Adam: Sure. My job is to try to see the vision before the vision is necessarily real. So a lot of the mistakes that I’ve made in terms of companies that I’ve worked with, in terms of people that I’ve worked with is projecting too much of myself and my hopes and dreams on that company or person without having really done the due diligence and having enough evidence to have seen the limitations. And sometimes that bites me in the butt. It’s easy to talk about mistakes that I made early because of too much confidence and too much arrogance, and I thought, “Oh, yeah, I’ve got this.” In the first few years of my company, I just kind of thought I was batting a thousand and I just knew exactly what to do. And I couldn’t have been more wrong. Crucially, I thought that I always knew better than my clients. I always thought that the clients were not to be listened to or the clients were going to have their input, and then you summarily ignore the input. And then it was some years down the road and it was, well, his name is Halli Thorleifsson, the founder of Ueno, the design agency.

Allen: Right.

Adam: The Icelandic design agency, and then famously or infamously recently he got acquired by Twitter, and then he and Musk got into a flame war on Twitter publicly.

Allen: Mm-hmm. Which Musk lost.

Adam: Right, exactly. I mean, he couldn’t have come out looking more poorly. And Halli triumphed. Anyway, I got to meet him and talk with him for a little while at one of the XOXO conferences, and he told me that one of the greatest things that happened to his agency was that he figured out how to stop fighting the clients and how to work with them. And that was during a time when I was still fighting my clients because I thought I knew better than them. When I started to embrace the collaborative spirit of working with clients and taking from them what you intuitively know will add value to the thing you’re working on, at the same time, having the benefit of making them feel good and heard and seen and respected, then that changed the game for my company. So I would say, I can’t think of any specific… No, I can think of a specific. One time, literally, I was on a call with… We had done this commercial for a FinTech related thing, and we had temp music in there, sort of like a swing jazz kind of thing. And then I brought in my favorite composer, Alex Weinstein, to make a track in the same idiom that was going to be custom and shaped perfectly, and the client said, “We just want to go back to the one you had in there.”

Allen: “Just the temp music, please.”

Adam: Yeah, “Temp music please.” And I got so belligerent and reactive to them, and I said, “You don’t pay me for your taste. You pay me for my taste.” And the client was literally like, “You went too far.” The client told me, “No. Not okay. Bad creative studio founder.” And I had no choice in that time but to listen. And because we never worked together again, it definitely reflected poorly on me. That founder probably went off and said something negative about me to the next founder if they were asked.

Allen: “This Adam guy thinks he knows everything.”

Adam: Yeah, totally. That’s my biggest fear is being this arrogant prick in the category that gets a bad reputation. You want to be delightful to work with. That should be the number one goal. It should be fun for everybody.

Allen: Yeah, I love that said explicitly because it’s something that I think a lot of people come to maybe not until they’re in the middle of their careers, is realizing that it’s not just try to get work that you could be proud of, but also make it the people that you work with are glad that they worked with you is maybe even more important because then you can work with really great people and then you can do even better work.

Adam: Totally. I will not know the source of the quote, “People remember how you made them feel.”

Allen: But people do remember how you made them feel, and that creates this flywheel effect over a career where over time, like you say, people talk to one another. “Oh, hey, I’m looking for my next gig. Should I work with Adam? Should I work with Allen? Should I work with so-and-so?” And how you made people feel, it’s not just like this hand wavy thing. It’s like a fundamental thing. People are choosing their life’s work and how they want to feel while they’re doing it. It’s a good way to comport yourself. So I love that as a mistake and paired lesson. Awesome. Well, thanks, Adam. This has been delightful. Where can people go to learn more about you and your work?

Adam: Thank you, Allen. This has been delightful for me too. I really love this kind of conversation and I love you as a person, so thank you very much for inviting me to do this. Easiest place, my compendium of everything is at my name .com, adamlisagor.com, or just sandwich.co. I’m trying to not do social stuff anymore. I’m on Mastodon. That’s fun.

Allen: Yeah, Mastodon, yeah.

Adam: I’m so excited for the phasing out of an era of the social web. It was just so toxic for our culture in almost every way, and certainly we built so much from it, like all of my good friends in this internet capacity I met through Twitter. But it’s so fun to see that the end of the toxified version of that is finally happening.

Allen: Well, looking forward to seeing what new thing replaces it in a way that hopefully we’ve learned something from the mistakes of the previous generation.

Adam: Yeah, agreed.

Allen: Thank you so much for being on the show, Adam. It Shipped That Way is brought to you by Steamclock Software. If you’re a growing business and your customers need a really nice mobile app, get in touch with Steamclock. That’s it for today. You can give us feedback, follow us on social media or rate the show by going to itshipped.fm/contact. We’d love to hear what you like, what kind of episodes you’re enjoying, particular guests that you’d love to hear. Until next time, keep shipping.

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