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A Makeshift Approach to Ideas

Innovation Strategy

Brimming with ideas and can’t stay focused on one thing at a time? That could be your best route to success, says Makeshift co-founder Stef Lewandowski.

Lewandowski lives to hack. As co-founder of Makeshift, a company that makes digital products that ‘give a leg up to the little guy’, he’s found a way to do that over and over, even for a break. He is an award-winning designer, software developer and startup person who is ruled by the maxim ‘create something every day’. His way out of a creative block?

“Go and do something really naughty.”

The ‘something naughty’ means working on a completely unrelated project to what he ‘should’ be focusing on, indulging his latest ideas to make way for the sparks to fly on the main assignment.

In founding Makeshift, along with designer Nick Marsh and experienced entrepreneur Paul Birch, Lewandowski has created a ‘startup for startups’ multiple. Right now, they have Help Me WriteHire My Friend, and Bitsy in action. Each connects makers and talented people to their audience in ways they might have found frustratingly closed before.

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Prior to Makeshift, Lewandowski co-founded Aframe, a cloud-based video production platform. As the technical founder, he helped grow the company from two to over thirty staff, saw it through $10m of private investment and on to expansion in North America.

We all know about Google’s famous 20% time policy, right? Well, Makeshift has a 100% time policy. Makeshift has met the matter of working on something you love head on. It hires people who will throw themselves in to creating digital products that help people do their thing better and as long as they are working towards that, anything goes. Even if it means clearing your head by working on something else entirely.

“It can be hard for the people I’m working with,” Lewandowski concedes. “They’ll say, ‘Stef, why are you working on that?’ and I’ll say ‘Well, because I have to.’ And then I’ll come back to what I was doing and say, ‘Ah, I see now’.”

He sees working on one big idea, saving it up and building up the expectations of it until some magical, mystical ‘right moment’ comes along as counterproductive. In fact for him, it’s counterintuitive. Lewandowski knows he needs to be in start-ups. Not one golden start-up that he can take forward and live and breathe forever, but lots of start-ups conquering varying challenges. He says the single-minded approach is the downfall of many a would-be entrepreneur.

“Don’t focus on one idea. See which emerges as the right thing to be working on instead of going to your family and borrowing their savings for an idea you haven’t tested. If you do that and it’s the wrong thing, you can’t abort.”

“I have been guilty of it, I have seen both sides of this and I have had to shut things in the past, companies I have spent a long time on. You don’t have to commit. You can hedge your bets but you don’t have to hedge your passion.”

The difference at Makeshift is multiple ideas, collaboration and testing. “We are makers and we come up with themes around giving a leg up to the little guy. If an idea looks like there is something in it we commit to a two week hack and that’s after a one page business plan. Then we either have to kill it or we give it three months and a team to turn it in to a product.”

The one page business plan refines the need for the product. For example, with Hire My Friend, the problem was how to use social networks and online connections in a job hunt without publicly stating ‘I hate my job. Who will hire me? Here’s my CV.’ That one page clarified the need: can anonymity and job search work? It turned out it could, so they set about building a site where jobseekers could create a profile that their friends could tweet on their behalf and then they unleashed it to see what would happen. Lewandowski says, “To build it was quicker than doing research on an industry we knew nothing about so that’s what we did, giving it the two weeks to see what sort of feedback we were getting.

The bigger question was ‘what could this do to the recruitment industry?’ Shake it up, it seems. Lewandowski and the team shared of a view of recruitment agencies, themselves having received inappropriate and uninvited job suggestions from recruiters via email or networking sites.

“I think the funniest thing was the reaction from the recruitment guys. We have been quite irreverent in our language and attitude towards how they work. We included a link that says ‘If you’re a recruitment agency, find out how you can work with us here’.

“We got a very negative reaction from recruiters. One pointed out the link was broken. That’s an interesting signal, that they don’t know how the internet works and yet they are attempting to use it to recruit people.”

Makeshift is expanding to a staff of eleven, a team with a busy board of ‘In Progress’, ‘Launched’ and ‘Deadpooled’ ideas. How does the ratio look? “We are not failing enough at the moment. We do have one we failed very recently and the cost of that was £7.500. I’m OK with that, that’s the model. When it gets to £60,000 that’s painful. Everything we invest on the wrong product, it’s something we are not investing on the right product. The opportunity cost is multiplied.”

Collaboration has made Makeshift happen and it’s not about working with someone the same as you. Lewandowski likens the team to the model of T shaped management: reach far across the company and deep into your department.

“Each of us brings a different angle but it was the three of us coming together that made the company,” he says. “I could’ve done this myself but I wouldn’t have made it happen as well as we have. The initial conditions for us were interesting. We had a little bit of concern about it being three men – were we going to build a very male company? – and it being three internet people. But it’s looking at those concerns and being aware of them that matters. We’re all hacky, experimental, fast.”

That the winning combination behind Makeshift is so focused on helping real people is a bonus for the rest of us – individuals who could use their products to get ahead. See what the Makeshift team can do for you. If you want to tap your connections for jobs, anonymously, create a profile on Hire My Friend. Or if you want to know what content you should be creating, get inspiration and motivation from your audience by logging your ideas on Help Me Write. If you need to sell, the no-fee Bitsy is your virtual shop window.

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