Mel Lim, Strategist, Author, Keynote Speaker, Award-Winning Designer

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Mel Lim, Strategist, Author, Keynote Speaker, Award-Winning Designer

Mel Lim is a global technology storyteller and strategy consultant. Her success record for growing and scaling companies has positioned her as one of the most sought-after consultants in the tech and software startup scene.

Mel is currently the President of Maspira Groupe, a startup consultancy focusing on product development and growth strategies. She serves on multiple advisory boards, and lectures worldwide on crafting innovative experiences through mindfulness. Mel recently completed a book entitled Turtle Design in a Rabbit Age. Published by CRC Press, her book offers a platform to help people achieve equanimity and find meaning in their work and lives through mindfulness, and companies to craft value by reframing their approach to impact creation and experience design.

Grab her book Turtle Design In A Rabbit Age and enter the code friendsofbruce15 to get a 15% discount.


[00:00:01] You're listening to Scaling Up Services where we speak with entrepreneurs authors business experts and thought leaders to give you the knowledge and insights you need to scale your service based business faster and easier. And now here is your host Business Coach Bruce Eckfeldt.

[00:00:22] Welcome everyone this is Scaling Up Services, I’m Bruce Eckfeldt, I'm your host and our guest today is Mel Lim and Mel is president of Miss Sparrow group and is author of Turtle Design In A Rabbit Age. And we're going to talk a little bit about her experience and history as a creative professional as a designer as a strategist now. Welcome to the program. Thank you Bruce. It's a pleasure having you on. I think the conversation is really interesting for me around this kind of creative strategy services you know and I realize we're looking through your notes. We're both we're both previous architects so trained as architects and being kind of steeped in this creative design services background but yet also trying to be business people.

[00:01:03] I think there's often there's often a balance that needs to be struck or at least there's challenges between those two. I love that you said trying to be.

[00:01:13] Well I've virtually I've learned that you know architects don't always make the best business people and oftentimes the best business architects are not necessarily the most creative architects but you know I think that I think there is a little bit of a push and pull and some other things. So why don't we start. Just give us a sense of your background like how did you get to what you're doing today and then you obviously want to talk about the book I want to talk about what you're doing you know in kind of the strategy and the creative services. But let's talk about background.

[00:01:35] Ok. So I'm originally from Penang Malaysia. I moved to the U.S. when I was 19 to study architecture at Art Center and I was practicing architecture for about seven years and then I moved into consulting. In 2006 I believe. But prior to that in 2003 I started my business and went into product manufacturing.

[00:01:59] Believe it or not I took fifteen hundred bucks from my full on care that time puny little fellow.

[00:02:05] Okay. And then and then within 24 months I scaled my product business to over a thousand retailers worldwide and over 500 skews and it became a legit big business. And that was how I kind of combined you know like you said architecture design creative to the business side where I had to quickly learn to fulfillment import export you know retail sales and all that. And then from all of my experiences I kind of pivoted to consulting in 2006 and brought on a couple of software clients and I haven't stopped since.

[00:02:45] So in the consulting services that you do what you focus on what is the service and value that you provide.

[00:02:50] We typically serve companies in the technology space from cybersecurity A.I. neuroscience crypto all that fun stuff. I actually was recently brought on a luxury client so that's like I'll

[00:03:09] Get lots more detail.

[00:03:11] But I think all of our clients are pretty fascinated by the way we handle growth acceleration through Brand Activation initiatives and they like that. They they're interested in how we're able to use a lot of creative branding strategies to help them just grow their revenue or brand awareness.

[00:03:35] Yeah those are tough. I mean those all those categories mean maybe luxury brand aside in all those categories are are fairly kind of esoteric abstract concepts and services like how how do you build a brand around these more kind of idea driven kind of conceptual things then a real kind of heart products and consumer based things. Right. A sense of the difference.

[00:03:57] So I think the the secret sauce is absolutely in the in the way we tell the story for these technology companies. You know I often talk to my team I'm like Oh my God my day is just packed with you know 10 hours of conversation with clients I want you know in the morning it's like cyber security and then I hang up and and the next and next is like crypto I'm like ok hang up and then about neuroscience and I feel like I have this walking Wikipedia or something.

[00:04:23] And at nighttime I have to constantly learn about the trends and I'll be ahead of my my clients because they're looking at us as this kind of the compass to to help them navigate right now. And so I am causally like reading up on these new tack and any you know reaching out to my hey what do you hope to learn from you guys.

[00:04:45] And then I come back and deliver all that that good stuff to the client and then so that's one piece just dunno how. And being on top of the trends in the technology in the news. The second piece to it is really to understand technology. And that takes time and it's journey which on which technology that technology of your clients or the technology of my client.

[00:05:09] So you have to learn about watching like you need actually go in and understand like what the hell is watching it and how does it I used to sit down and experience a day will walk me through there.

[00:05:20] You know the UI and a X for their software right. So I need to understand. And then here they go. Yes I me all the data sheets and I'm like Oh my God I am not an engineering background.

[00:05:29] So how do you do this. I mean I guess I'm. I mean you know I can kind of imagine but that seems like a lot of I mean if you're going from a 9:00 call on cryptocurrency to an 11:00 call on a I I go like do you just you just have more brain cells than most normal creative folks and can do that

[00:05:52] Because that might be some of it.

[00:05:53] I mean I guess you know that there is you know I do find that having just a big spongy brain that can absorb lots of technical information is there. People like that. There are some people that can just absorb lots of that stuff comprehend it very quickly you know.

[00:06:06] But that is not I wouldn't say that's not typical for someone who also thinks in a design creative.

[00:06:13] Yes. You know what. Yes. So it's very interesting. For instance I to have a conversation with a client and he'll be saying you know this is this is what we're trying to do and here are the use cases with I'll get into it without getting into deep details but he'll tell us like this other use cases we're trying to shift away that we're selling the software this year we need you to help us tell the story and I'm thinking OK so what are the use cases that we do a deep dive into each of each one of them. Then in the back of my mind I'm already thinking OK how do I tell that story visually.

[00:06:42] Is this going to be a layering of graphics that can stem from this. You know like a burst of an explosion of graphics that's coming from the center like I'm thinking visually I can get you some time sense as I'm talking to them and I when I hang up the phone it's almost like my brain can compartmentalize all these data and then I plug them in visually into all these different things and then that's how I sketch I sketch on paper and then I present it to them and say Hey here you go. We're going to communicate these three you use cases using these visual language and we're going to do it via PowerPoint video animation you know all these different things and it's like a what we call a meta thinker you go high level very macro and then you go micro and that's how my brain works for all my clients but of course add that to our conversation I really have to understand that technology because I can't just push it my way down and redo you know and understand and then figure out what is that competitive edge because there's so many cybersecurity companies that essentially you're a science guy. So I had to sit down and go you know I've researched this and this is what they're doing and I think we could do better and here's how.

[00:07:58] So yes I know my brain is thinking I think it is I think I'm sure there's a process you know but I'm sure there's a you know a way that your neurons your brain are connected to kind of be able to do that kind of work. The thing is I often find in these cases having worked with lots of sort of technologists there's so much information and so much detail yet and in the in the end so much of the creative stuff is about editing. You know taking out you know.

[00:08:28] Absolutely right. Yes it's it's it's all about editing. It's knowing when to say what to say and how to deliver that content and then and then when you break it down to the when how what. Who. Again it's almost I compartmentalized thing all that data and two bits and then you had this high level at the high level is all about that you know we'll come up with a high level worry this year it's going gonna be about X next year it's gonna be about Z whatever but

[00:08:57] Under X we're going to do all these different things. And here are the different buckets at least that's how my brain works and it works really well I guess with all these very analytical engineers and the architecture piece helps. Right.

[00:09:11] Bruce I mean you're talking about you know systems thinking you're talking about mapping out something that can translate from something that's so creative Annapolis to something that's so tangible and actionable. So it's like I am like the conduit between the two. Like I always tell my clients and the creative and also the business I know where you want to go what you want to hit. And I have this roadmap for you to get there. Give me the time people and resources and we'll hit it. So. So my business you know. Yes the creative piece. Absolutely. Very important.

[00:09:47] But it is all tied in to metrics and conversions and adoptions and engagement. That's that's all those pieces that's tied into that as well.

[00:09:56] So you're actually you're looking at measurable objective results and figure out what are the measure. I guess when you look at these kind of measures are there are there ones that you find are easier to kind of design for or to strategize against and some that are. Harder. Or is it really kind of yes. How does that how do you come up with the metrics.

[00:10:16] Well I think it's case by case. So for instance a client could say you know our main goal this year is to be able to get the sales people to sell more software. And our job here is to make their lives easier. We want to be able to close that sales cycle.

[00:10:32] Perhaps you know from 12 weeks to eight weeks let's say I have this goal right. I need to be able to shorten the sales engagement process. I need to have them close faster. What other tools that I can give these salespeople. So then I go backwards. OK. And then I have to analyze how they're presenting to you the two leaps. How are they doing their demos. So all these different pieces I would list them all down and then I look at how to improve that process for them and then and then we'll roll it out and sometimes see you know it'll be twelve weeks to eight weeks and sometimes you'll be twelve weeks to four weeks. But either way the whole idea is to shorten.

[00:11:12] You know your objective. It's funny I'd like the architecture.

[00:11:15] I see the architecture training coming out of almost being that anthropologists like you have to go in and you know let me understand let me let me observe how you're doing this thing right now.

[00:11:24] And then I can kind of see I can I can kind of see where we could kind of play with things as the whole like you know if I'm going to design a space for you. There's lots of different types of kitchens. I kind of need to know like how do you entertain and what kind of food you like to cook. And do you socialize in the kitchen or is it purely functional. Like I need to kind of go in and see really how you're going to do it before I can figure out the best design for your situation. So I think there's I think there's a lot of training that the other one that was fascinated by you know this idea of sort of synthesizing this functional side with the design side it's you know out on architecture a little bit but the whole party the whole idea of a party and architecture of of you have a program right. You have a list of these are all the spaces I need in the square footage and the functional like all these cars. Yeah I need that concept. I need that organizing principle that I'm going to use to give meaning or at least giving some kind of way in which I'm going to organize these things conceptually.

[00:12:15] And so I like your idea of a theme like and you know this year is going to be you know the idea of sales and next year might be something else. It is is kind of that party for the strategy is like OK well this is going to be the organizing principle for how we do things and everything is going to then fit under. Month by month calendar.

[00:12:32] Yes. And then on the high level side you're looking at things like you know whether or not you're communicating or delivering the messaging effectively without you know because brands they all have their high level kind of like this Montréal this manifesto that this one word that captures the essence right.

[00:12:52] But every year as trends change and then you have new competitors coming in these companies are looking to kind of like shift a little bit of that of that tone without compromising the core brand message right. So it gets more and more challenging over the years I feel because they're trying to adapt to what the market is looking and then but the product is essentially still the same. So so my role is to go in and look at OK how can we tweak the messaging so slightly but not changing you know the product itself because of course the RNC is going to kill me for. Changing it too much but then. There will be new market. And so every time we have a new audience a new market I have to go in and ever so slightly tweak the messaging just attack so that the audience can go all the resonating with this. And then we don't tweet too much of the graphics because you know once we produce 100 K video we are not going to reproduce it again. Yeah. So then I have to go in and tweak ever so slightly maybe the tagline or maybe the graphics here and there to just sit that audience and capture them.

[00:14:05] They say this and this is it is based on time or is it based on segment like are you saying that you do this for each segment that you're going out to or is it each segment each segment because you know for a large company not only targeting the U.S. audience targeting Asia they're targeting Europe.

[00:14:23] And I have to be very kind of culturally sensitive with the Catholics and how well so I guess you know imagine the kind of cultural localization or the sensitivities shows me the cultural associations or the sensitivities that would need to be adjusted or are there more strategic considerations like Do you really get into. Well this you know this country right now like this concept is really big or this is a big trend. So I want to key on on that other than just well that we use words in different ways or I need to localize the content. At what level are you doing that kind of adjustment.

[00:14:55] So it's it can be big and it can be small sometimes and all depends on how fast they want to capture that new market if it's going to be.

[00:15:04] For instance if I'm given a short amount of time now we have a big trade show coming up in U.K. let's say. So everything around that effort it has to be customized for the UK audience. I can't just go in and just say hey tweak one word and here and there.

[00:15:19] We built this graphics because they don't like this right now and we got to be sensitive at the political game.

[00:15:24] Know So but but it's almost like I have to. I wouldn't say redesign. It's more like reframing reframing all of the deliverables to suit that particular trade show or engagement or a big client that they're going for. Yes. Still yeah. So my my my life is pretty interesting. Yeah

[00:15:47] It's it's fast. It sounds fun. I mean it sounds hard and it sounds complicated but it sounds fun is that I guess what do you what do you love about it. Like what. What is the real for you what is what is the real passion or what is the real intrigue about doing what you do.

[00:15:59] My dad I was just telling a friend a couple days ago about this because you know he was observing the way that I work and he's like How can you do this 20 hours a day.

[00:16:11] And so intense about it and you have so many different clients demanding different things from you at all times. You know what I find the most exciting is is having this this ability and trust from my client's right to execute impeccably but also to do all that with very limited amount of time and resources. I get the kick out of it like I find it very.

[00:16:38] I love the challenge. Yeah. Don't don't give me a lot of money don't give me a lot

[00:16:45] And I can show you that we can do so much with X and it gives me this like oh like this the satisfaction that Oh my God if I could do this with this much impact with just this amount of time and resources. Boy you're going to roll this out throughout the year. And with this much dollar of Oh my God I think I can't even imagine. I don't know I just get very excited about having this ability to turn.

[00:17:11] You know like I always give the the the analogy is like give me a bowl of white rice and I can turn it into a crab meat fried rice. But

[00:17:24] I got say you like it again. It's going to be there's young people of crab meat. Right right.

[00:17:32] I love it. I love it. Yeah I think there is there is something strangely motivating about constraints like give it given the right set of constraints like it. It's it is it's kind of it's the challenge you have to innovate. You have to figure out how to stretch things it's you know it makes it interesting. Otherwise it's like oh well I have it if I have a limited budget and I can take as long as I want. Like I don't know what to do.

[00:17:56] Right. So I don't have nothing to work with. Yes exactly.

[00:17:59] So the constraints established this framework right. It gives you this framework and you go how can I be innovative with only this.

[00:18:09] And it's like you know helping your kids you know you just build something out of like cardboard or daycare center animals and you're like You know I used to do that when I was growing up my father would buy me Barbie dolls but he will not buy me the accessories right. And I'm thinking well I need a car for my Barbie I need the mansion I need clothes I'll start making those things by myself by cutting up all the like fabric and a house today.

[00:18:36] Or maybe things. And so I have this mentality that you know you don't get to give me a lot. You don't give me a little and I can make this amazing and I think most creative people work that way. You know give them a little bit and then they'll stretch it. So that's my that's my thing I love to stretch things.

[00:18:52] So let's talk a little bit about the book so. Well first of all let's talk about the title curdled design and a rabbit. H Yeah. It like. So there's a backstory on this or so there is a back story on this.

[00:19:06] Actually I was a keynote that I gave at a design conference.

[00:19:10] It was like a 30 minute Kino that I gave about slowing down and the organizer was asking me like how do you design for technology companies and using your methodology and my methodologies as a yes I design for companies and their ad on Agile method and rapid prototyping all the time and they're moving 100 miles per hour but when they engaged me I move equally as fast. It's just that I am extremely mindful about the where the what the hows and what we're trying to achieve when you engage me and I want it to be extremely impactful. So because my methods are always about asking the right questions and forcing my clients you know like for instance well we just want a website and I'll go why are we designing this website while we redesigning this website. Why are we changing it. What's the content. Why do we want to have this content. And the more questions I ask I get down to the bottom of it. Well we just want people to sign up on demo and other waste is getting people set up a demo. Let's look at the other ways. That's more efficient or effective. Right. So the more questions I ask. I find that I'm unveiling this this underlying problems that they have. Well what does the demo lead to. Well we just want people to try out a product because we have an adoption issue. So well then the more I ask I dig deeper it and I have all these problems and then what I then do is then I just then prioritize those problems and solutions for them.

[00:20:42] So I couldn't get to the to the bottom of it if I didn't force my clients to slow down and answer my questions. So I wrote this book because I wanted people to kind of have this mindful practice and appreciation from not only my craft but for their craft. You know I was all alone how my clients and it took you know five years to develop the software. Why did why do you want to just like slept something on it and then sell it. I mean if you want people to take your company seriously your products seriously and especially for enterprise product right. Well we got to do it the right way. Like don't just step something on it and ship it go to the right way still. I'm I'm forcing them or I'm almost empowering or educating them that they have to respect their product. Number one they're processors. And my role is to help their consumers and their clients respect their product appreciate you know all the good stuff that they had built to create this company. And you know essentially it's about craftsmanship. So that's where it came about. Is teaching people how to be very mindful about creating meaningful experiences that can connect business to people.

[00:21:54] Yeah yeah I'd like that idea. I mean I think that you know that the the you know whether you're a consultant designer a strategist an architect you know that there is there's a certain kind of integrity or a certain yes there's something about what you do that has some core purpose and you need to keep that in mind as you provide this.

[00:22:17] I mean yes you want to be client focus and yes you want to be service focused and yes you want to meet the needs of your client. But there are times when you do need to push back or you do need to pause or you do need to slow down and say okay look is this really. Is this really what we want to do or is this really going to be going to get us the outcome that we want. And that can be really hard. I think a lot of people get wrapped up into it well.

[00:22:36] So yes I want to add to that it's the idea of knowing that you know I always tell my design friends we have this power and you know it all stemmed from the conversation of commanding your worth or demanding pay for the right fees. Right. Lenny is all that people always say oh you're a starving artist.

[00:22:54] No no no that's not true.

[00:22:58] But I think it's it's from the moment that when you are aware of the real power that you have then you are able to deliver. And I think it took me a while to realize this power that I have mean over the course of 20 years being in the U.S. and designing you know from architecture like retail spaces to casinos to stadiums and then moving into this product manufacturing and moving into consulting. And I realized that I'm constantly designing experiences that make people do things like you said it architecture you are making people sit shop play you know do all these things that I know and you're moving into the digital world.

[00:23:33] You're making people click this download this. Her journeys up little watch this and this this this is power brews. This is like you we have this ability to instigate change and to create this new realities and and all these changes and realities it actually helps either make or break a business and have impact it has had. And so once you realize this you're like Oh my God I have to be very careful about how I exercise this power. You've got a fiduciary responsibility now to write code amongst designers like this code like I like even now.

[00:24:10] Like I teach people you know through my workshops and lectures how to transform your power even when I'm on stage. I have to be very careful about what I say. Then you know especially when people ask questions like you know you're asking us to design a meaning to life and experiences I want I want to start my own business and then I'll get a hold on a second.

[00:24:31] Starting your own business that actually requires a lot. And then I have to go into all the good stuff and the ugly so that there where you know I'm not going to say gaggles with a passion. And I'm like Yeah. Go for the passion. Yes. But there are other reality factors like for instance you got to figure out how to make money. You got to feed your kids and all these things and I have to be very mindful of how how I deliver my message.

[00:24:56] Yeah. No I think true with great great power comes great responsibility. You need to take it seriously. So we're gonna we're gonna hit time here. I know. If people want to get more information on on you on the book what's the best.

[00:25:09] What's the best way to get a hold of that so you can visit my Web site. It's Oh I for my startups and consulting engagement its .

[00:25:22] I'll make sure I make sure both of those links are on the show note so people can click through. Mel this has been a pleasure. I think there's a lot of folks I know in this audience who are art or crafts people and I think that the thinking is thinking about it that way and thinking about you know what is what is their purpose and what is the role and the power that they have and what do they need to be responsible about. Is it really a really great message and I think it's it's a great conversation so I really appreciate your time.

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