September 20, 2018
Pithy Conversations with CEOs
Susan Grossinger, Rainlight
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Announcer: It's time for In Process, conversations about business in the 21st Century with Evelyn Ashley and John Monahon. Presented by Trusted Counsel, a corporate and intellectual property law firm. For more information, visit trusted-counsel.com. And now with In Process, here are Evelyn Ashley and John Monahon.
John: Hello, I'm John Monahon.
Evelyn: And I'm Evelyn Ashley.
John: And we are the hosts of In Process. And today we are continuing our series of pithy conversations with CEOs where we go in-depth with CEOs of companies to learn more about their culture, how they manage, and a little bit about their backstory.
Evelyn: Yes. And we've got a great CEO today who goes by the title of Director, Susan Grossinger. Who runs Rainlight Studio, which is a boutique product design studio. And Susan has a really interesting background with a career that spans architecture, interior design, and product design. And she has built practices by understanding the market and their clients. She has been working in this area for a number of years. And basically her passion for product design has propelled the international practice of Rainlight with clients in Europe, Asia, and North America.
Susan has a great quote that says, "Product is about the individual and their interaction with an object. It is the most personal of the design disciplines. Whether it's your eyeglasses, the chair you sit in, or your steering wheel, we have a visceral interaction with design that affects our day-to-day life. The opportunity that makes experience extraordinary is itself an exceptional experience."
Susan was Director of Interiors for 15 years at HOK in Los Angeles, building the practice in diverse fields of corporate workplace, aviation, science, and technology and education. She was recently honored by the IIDA with a lifetime membership. And she is a three-time judge of the PIA, which is the Product Innovation Awards. She's active in environmental and animal rights non-profits and has served on the Board of Directors for Heal The Bay in Santa Monica, California, for more than 15 years.
Welcome to the show, Susan!
Susan: Thanks, Evelyn. And who is that person you're talking about? She sounds so impressive.
Evelyn: There you go. See, we ... Sometimes we just need to reflect what we've done, and maybe a podcast is what it's all about, you know?
Susan: Yes. Well, thanks for having me.
John: Susan, can you give the listeners a quick 60-second elevator pitch about what your company's about?
Susan: Sure. We are called Rainlight, and we are a product design studio in London and Los Angeles. We have industrial designers who create products in all areas of architecture and design. So those things range from carpet to lighting to furniture to very technical curtain wall systems. So anything that touches the architecture or interiors of a building is within our realm. And we feel as though we're sort of part lab and part workshop and part studio.
We really feel like we're a think tank for industrial design in the A & D community. And I think one of the great things about our company and my partner and I ... Who is located in London, I'm in Los Angeles ... Is that we really combine the business side of product design with the creative. And we think that both sides have equal importance. So that may have been a long elevator ride, but there you have it.
Evelyn: No, it's good. And I think it actually tells us, too, why your business partners, your manufacturing partners, are so interested in doing business with you. Because you can marry those various pieces together so well. Which results in sales, which I guess is what everyone is interested in to being with.
Susan: Exactly, exactly. So I think that there are a couple of things that attract them to us. I mean, obviously, we're a people business so they have to value and like us as people and what we have to offer. They definitely understand the business and creative components that we bring. And we also start every project with pretty intense research. We do bring in experts in the field, whether it's a new lab benching system or a healthcare product, or a product for stadiums, which is one we just started recently.
We bring experts into the field to work with us so that we can integrate all of the many, many years of thinking they've brought to those specific fields as experts in those fields. And we combine that with our creative. So I think it's a combination of things. I think that's pretty unique in the world of product design and so that clients that do seek us out really talk about that research component a lot.
Evelyn: Susan, we went into your background, which is very impressive. But, you know, it raises the question, how did you end up at Rainlight? And did you expect to end up in at Rainlight-
Susan: At Rainlight?
Evelyn: At any point?
Susan: I thank you for not mentioning how many years I've been in the architecture and design profession. But it has been quite, quite a lot of years. And my background is not in design. My degree is in business management and marketing. And I actually responded to an ad in the L.A. Times when one sought a job that way. Looking for a marketing director for an architecture firm, which honestly I have no idea what that meant. I didn't know what qualifications were needed. I just thought it sounded interesting. And I went for the interview with a slightly enhanced resume and somehow I got the job. And there were private offices in those days, and they showed me my office and said, "Susan, you know, we're so glad you're here. You know, here's your office. Let us know if you need anything." And they closed the door. It's was like, "Oh my God, what do I do now?"
So I, you know, I guess I eventually figured it out because I've had a career in this field. But in terms of having or running a product design company, no, never in a million years thought that this was sort of the trajectory of my career. But it's great. I love the profession and you had my quote at the beginning, Evelyn, which is so true. Because now I see nothing but products. I used to be on the design side and I'd look at, you know, buildings as I approached them and I'd look at the interiors of a restaurant or an office as I sat in them. Now I see none of those things. I only see products. I look at the light fixture and the chair and the coffee cup someone has handed me and all those things.
And I really ... I just find objects and products fascinating. And what makes them successful or unsuccessful or ... You know, Apple iPhone is the one that we bring up all the time as, you know, the brilliance behind that idea and creating desire in the market. And we use that a lot because we need to create products for our clients that their clients desire. So a manufacturer's an intermediary between the industrial designer, whether outside or in-house, and the client who purchases their products, right? So they're really the middle man. That's really interesting, sort of who the client is here. But they need to create desire in the clients who are gonna buy their stuff. Whatever their stuff is. Because that could be the most brilliant idea in the world ... And we've had brilliant ideas that have been complete duds in the market. And I guess that they're not very brilliant, are they?
But from a conceptual level, they were fantastic ideas. But somehow they did not spark a nerve in the market. And therefore they were not successful-
Evelyn: As a result.
Susan: For the client, for us, for anybody.
Evelyn: Interesting. That whole cachet ... So I actually think of cachet as being quite marketing-oriented. But I think it's interesting. But that it's really a combination, though, really of research also and knowing an industry so well, right?
Susan: Right, exactly. And, you know, Steve Jobs, the epitome of that. I mean, he's brilliant. He knew the market, he knew what the market was missing. I mean, he really honed in on it. And, you know, and he was another one that I always use the Henry Ford expression that if he would have asked them what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse. A lot of times can't enunciate the thing-
Evelyn: Yup, that they want.
Susan: That they're gonna desire, but when they see it, they know it.
Evelyn: Yes, I always thought it was really shocking the Steve Jobs quote of, "I'm going to tell you what you want to buy."
Evelyn: Which I'm paraphrasing. But, you know, when you ... But when you see the result of that, you realize, well [crosstalk 00:10:04]-
Susan: You can't argue with it.
Evelyn: Yes, and that's exactly what happens. Isn't that what great marketing combined with great products actually does?
Evelyn: It makes people want them.
John: Yes [crosstalk 00:10:14]. How do you guys work with your clients to come up with product designs? I mean, what's that process like?
Susan: It's different with every client. I think one of the important things about our little company is that we don't come with a pre-defined process. "Here's the 16 steps we would use with every single client." We really individualize how we work. So with some clients we've done very detailed market research with them. Traveling across the country to look at various companies and how they're working. And spend time in the space to analyze what's working in a space and not working in a space. You know, it could have been a six, eight, nine month process in the particular one I'm mentioning.
In others, if we come with an expert group, we have a partner that has pretty deep knowledge of the market and we will come if not with design, which we usually don't like to do, we come at least with an identification of a need. So it can go both ways depending on the client and what that particular market sector is like.
Evelyn: It's interesting. It's kind of like ... it's basically from what I'm hearing is like a consulting business for product design, really, that-
Susan: It is.
Evelyn: Yes. That-
Susan: I think that business consulting is a big part of who we are. I don't think it's a huge part of every industrial design firm, but it definitely defines us. And I think that that ... Of course, I'm the business half so I think that part's really important. But that's where we say that that is a really unique aspect of what we bring.
And I think it's really important to be a client's confidant and consult them in every aspect of their business maybe outside a product. You know, help them take a look at their branding, their market strategy. What's being successful for them in the market and what we might be able to tap into make them more successful. So I think we advise in a lot of different ways and at the end of the day, though, that it's the product.
John: So with the creative aspect and the business aspect, I mean, what's the role ... I mean, how do you come about it a successful outcome? Is it by keeping them separate but working together? Or do you somehow try to get members of the team to understand the other roles and how they can I guess gear towards that side a little bit more?
Susan: I think it's really integrated and very seamless. I don't think there's role definition at all when you're, you know, part of a small boutique company and everybody does everything. And everybody's opinion does matter and the insights that every person brings from their particular background and the life they've held is very important. And so I think that the best of all worlds is where we're sort of ... It's a Vulcan mind meld. I mean, we become like one with the client. And we end up being ... Thinking along the same lines in a natural [crosstalk 00:13:47] progression.
Susan: You know, we all arrive at the same conclusion at about the same time. It just becomes obvious because you've taken this journey together and there's the answer and it seems ... You know, it's rare that people would come to the end of a process like that and one says, "Oh, I think it should be blue." And another person says, "No, it's red." And I think that's how, you know, like we've landed on something right.
Evelyn: Yes, absolutely. You've said that you didn't ... Well, I think you didn't really expect to run a company, just kind of based on what we've talked a little bit about on your background. And-
Susan: I would say that's true, Yes.
Evelyn: What were your biggest challenges in suddenly running a business? And what are they kind of on an ongoing basis?
Susan: So, you know, I'm gonna take a little step back from that because I think people who eventually run businesses are serial entrepreneurs, whether they've actually owned and run a business in the past or not. For me, every position I've held, I've acted in a capacity that it's my business. And if my role is marketing, then marketing to me always engendered a lot of different ... Like I had to know that the company's strategy was right. And it was important the people they hired were great people. And I was always involved in different aspects of the business because for marketing to succeed, the business has to succeed. And the people there have to be right.
So I've always done everything and had a hand in everything. So I don't think it's that different. I mean, it was a progression for me to get here, but I don't think it was like jumping off a cliff to what I'm doing today. What was jumping off a cliff is I didn't know a darn thing about product design and running a product design company. And there you have the problem is that, you know, I could have been a little more educated. This definitely falls into the category of if I only knew then what I know now. And I say that every year. And we're nine years into the company. And if knew, you know, in year two what I knew in year three, you know, that would have been fantastic. So on and so forth.
So there is ... Yes. There is huge learning. I mean, there is ... I read memos or emails I've written a couple, two, three years ago and I'm just really surprised at how naïve they sound now. So I ...
Evelyn: How far you've come.
Susan: Yes. And that's what makes ... That's part of what makes it great, right? Because if we were static and staying in the same place all the time, it would be boring. And life's about learning something new every day. So, you know ... And if I can say, I know this is not a commercial for Trusted Counsel, however, Trusted Counsel has been my trusted advisor since the inception of the business.
And I think, you know, Evelyn and John, you can say a lot of the same things I've been saying about being our clients' trusted advisors. You guys, you know, helped me get this thing up and running and were advisors way beyond the narrow definition of, you know, a legal firm. So you-
John: Thank you.
Susan: Understand I know and you're sure act in that capacity with not just us but with all of your clients. You understand the importance of it. I mean, if you see something that's not right, it doesn't matter whether it's in your contract or not, right? You're gonna help your client.
Evelyn: Right. Well, I think it's, you know, the ... And this is really what, you know, you were saying about not being ... When you weren't the CEO, you basically were the leader because you were taking responsibility for how success could be delivered. And I think that lots of people who are not in the sea level, you know, seat think, "Well, it's not my job. So why should I come to the table and give my opinion?"
And I think it's absolutely, you know, it just holds everyone back because that's really what ... That's what leadership and progression actually is. You need to come to the table and feel like a participant in order to, you know, be personally successful at what you're doing as well as the overall success of the business, right?
Susan: Yes. And, you know, honestly I've never been slapped down for it. No one who led a company that I would come in and say, "You know, I really feel like our senior designer on this project could have a lot better relationship with the client." I mean, they've never ever said to me, "You know, that's not your business or that's not your area." It's always accepted and appreciated. So I think people sometimes are fearful of what ... I'm not sure of what ... But fearful that people will think they're-
Evelyn: Out of line?
Evelyn: Yes, out of line-
Susan: Or out of line.
Susan: And I've never encountered that. And I don't think that's how it would be in 99% of cases.
Evelyn: Situations, Yes. I agree. What have you learned that comes as the most pleasant surprise? I mean, you said you can see your own progression when you look back at your writings and everything, but is there anything that has just enriched you to a point that you feel like, "Wow, I didn't expect that"?
Susan: I think a couple of things. One, and sort of the non-enriching category, is that a couple, two, three, maybe four years into the company we were putting together a marketing presentation for a client and I'm putting together a client list and, you know, a portfolio of our projects. And I step back and I go, "Wow, that's really good." I mean, we had very quickly a very impressive client list and a really nice portfolio of projects, which you can do relatively quickly in product design. I think that at the beginning, you know, with all the uncertainty and, "Are we going in the right direction? And are we doing the right thing?" That the market told us, "Yes." And that was really great. Because [crosstalk 00:20:46]-
Susan: I wasn't making it up.
Evelyn: It was a leap off of a cliff.
Susan: It was. So that was good to say, "Well, people, you know, think that this is working. So I must have made a couple of right decisions along the way."
John: Now, have you had any ... This is a little bit off-topic ... But have you had any favorite product designs that you guys have done? Any particular ones that you're proud of?
Susan: Yes. Next question.
John: Yes, we won't go there.
Evelyn: How about if we talk about your corporate culture?
John: Let's skip that one.
Susan: No. You know what? I have ... I actually have a lot of favorites. And I know people, you know, with multiple children, all are supposed to have a favorite, a secret favorite child. But I have so many that it's silly. And they're very diverse. I mean, there are very specific things that I really like about them. But going back to, you know, what's pleasant surprise is the relationship, the close relationship I've developed with so many of these clients. Because we're so small, we're six people, they really do become family.
And it's very different than working for, you know, either a large corporation or a very large design firm where the teams are large. You could have a 30-person team or a 50-person team working on a hospital or an airport. With us, you know, basically it's, "Here we are." You know, it's two partners and we're the beginning, middle, and the end of everything that's gonna happen with our team. And so I thought it was great that there are lifetime relationships that have been developed that will survive long past, you know, working on the product together.
Evelyn: That's cool. So Susan, just to kind of change the direction just a little bit ... And you're working with business clients. You are in the business management role. But you also are working with creatives. And we know from other companies that sometimes the combination of the business with the creative can actually create challenges. Any secrets for kind of successful outcomes for this kind of relationship?
Susan: Definitely. I mean, I've spent a career with creatives. So it's not just Rainlight that I've sort of been plopped into this environment. And I think as in anything ... And it's so simple ... But it's mutual respect. My partner and I, Yorgo Lykouria in London, come at things from a very different perspective. And we most certainly don't agree on things all the time. But at the end of the day, you know, he respects my opinion and what I bring to the business and I respect his opinion. And he's an incredibly talented, creative person.
And he can't do what I do and I can't do what he does. So, you know, from that perspective, it's not like, you know, knocking the king off like in the old days. Because we can ... We are linked arm-in-arm in the success of this business. And I think as long there's respect there ... I mean, there's always gonna be creative tension. And I don't think that that's a bad thing.
Evelyn: Yes, and I think a lot of times that can lead to better results, right?
Susan: Yes, Yes-
Susan: I mean, we ... As I said before to John, everything we do is integrated. I have ... I'm no designer by any stretch of the imagination, but I do have an eye for the market and what might work better in the market at large or what direction might be a little bit stronger for a certain client. And, you know, when Yorgo talks to me about the direction of how we're managing a process or trying to bring something to conclusion, he definitely has ... Might have a different way of approaching something that's going to be more successful in the end.
So I just think it's good and, you know, I've never been one to thrive off yes people. I definitely thrive off two plus two equals five, and I think that's exactly what we have.
Evelyn: Right. Violent commitment to a position and then compromise.
Susan: Yes, Yes.
Evelyn: Do you have any big business priorities for the year?
Susan: Yes. You know, at the end of the day, we are almost real time evaluating where we are. And I think that we want to collaborate with clients who have the same goals that we do. And so I think from a big strategy perspective that we are being a lot more selective on who we're working with. And making sure that at the end of the day, we are on the same train heading in the same direction. We've had some great products, but maybe for the wrong client. And we've had some maybe products we could have done better for that client. And I think that that matchup between the client and the business has to be synergistic.
And then you have to be really, really smart about what's right for that client in the market today. And not just today. What's always really interesting is we need the crystal ball because a product we start today will not hit the market until at least two years, if not three or four years down the line. So something that, you know, is totally the thing today could be here today and gone tomorrow. Our crystal balling has to be really, really good.
Evelyn: Really good.
Susan: And so our strategy is revolving around, you know, who are the best client matches for us? And then trying to develop a relationship with them to see if we're gonna be a good match.
Evelyn: Interesting. So this has been really great, Susan. We've gone so ... It's like no time at all. I feel like we've been talking for about 10 minutes. Before we sign off, though, do you have any words of wisdom for our listeners?
Susan: No fear. Don't be afraid to be the person in the room who's asking the stupid question. And I think coming from a place that, if you can dream it you can do it. You know, I think that every single day we take the practice another step forward. And we're not big on written strategic and business plans, where we're big on being agile and changing direction in an hour if that's what needs to happen. And you have to be pretty fearless I think to be able to do that.
Evelyn: To be able to do that. Yes.
Susan: So, I guess that would be my big statement.
Evelyn: That's awesome.
John: And Susan, how can people learn more about Rainlight Studios?
Susan: Please go see us at rainlightstudio.com. That's our website. You can contact us directly through the website if you want to talk more.
John: Perfect. Well, it's been a real pleasure. This has been great.
Evelyn: Yep. Thank you so much, Susan. We really appreciate your time.
Susan: Thanks, John. Thanks, Evelyn.
John: Thank you.
Susan: I really appreciate it.
Evelyn: Take care. We'll see you next time.
Announcer: This has been In Process, conversations about business in the 21st Century with Evelyn Ashley and John Monahon. Presented by Trusted Counsel, a corporate and intellectual property law firm. Are you interested in being a guest on our show? Email our show producers at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on Trusted Counsel, please visit trusted-counsel.com.