Kevin Jennings - Vice President of Strategy of Fuzz

I’d take more chances, fail quicker and cheaper, and be better at minimizing the impact of failure. It’s important to balance the confidence to try again with the humility to do things differently. I’d have curbed the stubbornness and arrogance that fueled the detrimental determination to force the same approach to work when it has proved it will not.

Kevin Jennings is the vice president of strategy at Fuzz, a leading mobile product agency based in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., that creates beautiful, usable products engineered to perform. Kevin is a recognized thought leader and a graduate of Clemson University who has played key roles at SapientNitro and Ralph Lauren.

How did Fuzz begin, and how has it evolved into the company it is today?

Fuzz began in 2001 as a web development and technology consultancy to capture a market opportunity at that time. Then, in 2007, the introduction of the first-generation iPhone presented a new market opportunity in app development that became a space for consistent growth as the market evolved. Today, Fuzz is a mobile-focused, product-oriented organization; it employs experts in its core disciplines of strategy, creativity, and software development.

Fuzz is focused on creating, managing, and evolving best-in-class products. Our brand platform, “engineered to perform,” captures our focus on creating high-performance products in a world where the average mobile application relies on six or more cloud services. The diversity of devices, operating systems, and third-party technologies creates endless risks to performance. We earn the right to live in consumers’ pockets by creating products that deliver in their mobile moment of need, respecting their willingness to abandon technologies that don’t work.

What does your typical day look like, and how do you make it productive?

My typical day begins at 5:30 a.m. I head to the gym to lift or run a few miles, which creates a feeling of accomplishment. Getting my body in motion and blood flowing first thing in the morning ignites my creativity and sets me up for a successful day.

From 6:30-8:30 a.m. is my quiet time when I consume content — particularly from Harvard Business Review, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and my favorite blogs — and get smart on what is happening around me. My daily commute is only about a 20-minute train ride each way, and I set aside that time to brainstorm around a specific challenge facing me, a client, or my team. I rapidly ideate into my notes app; most days I walk off the train with an actionable idea to test.

During core business hours, it’s easy to get lost in meetings. There are a few principles I try to adhere to: First, multidisciplinary collaboration doesn’t mean everyone attends every meeting. Bring only those you need, and deliver effective communication to those not present. Second, every meeting doesn’t need to last an hour — always give time back when you move through an agenda faster than expected. For one-on-one meetings, I like to take a walk around the block or head to a coffee shop — anything to change the environment and keep me thinking.

It’s important for me to leave the workplace at a decent hour and change environments, even if I have more work to do. The train ride home, a dinner with friends, or a kickboxing class takes me away from my thoughts long enough to let ideas settle. This creates an opportunity for me to achieve a breakthrough when I return to a difficult challenge. Re-approaching an idea in a different environment can yield powerful results.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I bring ideas to life through multidisciplinary collaboration and by opening myself to many perspectives and industries. Brand, business, and consumer insights yield product improvement ideas that have to be molded and shaped by our creative and engineering practices. Perspectives both within and beyond our industry are essential to producing the best results.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

While emerging technology like wearables, beacons, contactless payments or virtual reality excites many in our industry, perfecting contextual experiences is what excites me most.

Understanding consumer intent and delivering value based on what consumers are thinking is an incredibly exciting challenge and opportunity. Most of us spend the majority of our digital time on mobile devices, which means there are endless environments and scenarios that drive user intent. Trying to anticipate what value the user seeks and to deliver it is the ultimate challenge.

What is one skill of yours that makes you more productive as a leader?

I love to find out what people are best at and let them do it. Scaling an organization requires a significant talent transformation. When starting a company, you need a few people who wear a lot of different hats. But to scale a company, you need to help your existing team members find out which hat they wear best, then acquire new talent to wear the remaining hats.

What was the worst job you ever had, and what did you learn from it?

My very first job after college was selling obituaries for $5.75 per line at The Courier-Journal, a Gannett newspaper in Louisville, Kentucky. The job was challenging because everyone thought obituaries were free though they’re actually quite expensive. It was tough news to deliver to customers who were already at a heightened emotional state. I learned a great deal about setting and managing expectations, being compassionate, and helping people tell their stories.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

I’d take more chances, fail quicker and cheaper, and be better at minimizing the impact of failure. It’s important to balance the confidence to try again with the humility to do things differently. I’d have curbed the stubbornness and arrogance that fueled the detrimental determination to force the same approach to work when it has proved it will not.

As a leader, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I encourage everyone to ask more questions. There are two ways to look at this. First, never assume that all the questions have already been asked and answered. If you’re a business leader, then make sure you create a culture where everyone feels comfortable asking a question if something doesn’t make sense or if they see an unaddressed variable. Second, there’s nothing more dangerous than the right answer to the wrong question. As humans, we naturally focus on the answer. Instead, try to focus on asking the right questions, and the answers will follow.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Do one thing, and do that thing really well. This is not an uncommon strategy or principle, but in the world of agencies that deliver digital, mobile, and other technology products, it’s easy to go wild with what you’re capable of without focusing on what you’re best at. You can’t be everything to everyone, but you can be the perfect solution for a particular challenge. That’s where you win.

What is one failure you’ve had, and how did you overcome it?

Very early in my career, I had a difficult time accepting feedback. Humans are emotional beings; too often, we become so emotionally connected to our work that we are unable to distinguish constructive feedback from personal criticism.

As a result, peers who care about us and want to deliver the best product are faced with the unfair conflict of sacrificing the quality of the product or hurting our feelings. It took losing some great opportunities before I realized that my inability to accept feedback had created an unfair climate for my peers and limited our ability to do our best work as a team. Now, I always take a moment to quickly self-assess when my first instinct is to defend. I determine the root of my defensiveness. If it has merit, I’ll voice my concerns. If not, I’ll try to release my emotions and make the improvements needed.

What is one business or product idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

One of my favorite ideas that I’ve never implemented is a mobile product for the “staycation” concept: Millennials in metropolitan areas looking to indulge in a night out of their tiny studio or a romantic night with their significant other in a luxurious hotel room with champagne, room service, and an incredible view.

The business model would rely on a flash sale of available inventory after typical check-in time, a significantly reduced room rate for guests with a billing zip code within 25 miles of the hotel, and the insight that “staycation” guests are more likely to spend on incidentals within the hotel than a tourist or business traveler who will spend time outside the hotel.

Unlike discount hotel sites that appeal to travelers looking for a cheap room, this idea is crafted around a value exchange: The hotel makes a concession on the room cost in exchange for higher-value transactions on the property from guests who are there to experience the hotel, not the city where they already reside.

Tell us something about you that very few people know.

I’m a classically trained violinist and pianist. Beginning my music studies in the fifth grade, I learned discipline and commitment at an early age. I learned so much about the value of a great mentor; my parents’ passion and dedication to my music inspired me every day.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

A few of my favorite web services are Uber, Seamless, and Venmo. I love them because they fundamentally changed a facet of my life without inventing something new.

Since downloading Uber a few years ago, I can count on one hand how many taxis I’ve taken. Uber didn’t create a new form of transportation; it simply changed the way I accessed it: tapping an app versus walking from one busy street corner to another looking for a cab and competing with others for it.

From the moment I began using Seamless, I stopped picking up the phone to order takeout. That’s powerful — when a digital or mobile product can render an action (calling a restaurant and ordering food) entirely obsolete. Seamless didn’t open a new restaurant or prepare food differently; it simply made many restaurants more accessible to me.

Venmo, a service for transferring money, eliminated my need for paper checks and simplified the exchange of money among my friends who often drink, dine, and travel together. There’s always the one friend who forgets his wallet but has his phone or the friend whose “I’ll get you next time” tab is greater than the national debt. Venmo didn’t invent a new currency — it just changed the way we exchange it.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Two of my favorite books are “Good to Great” and “Built to Last,” both by Jim Collins. Either will truly change the way you think about your business. Although they are very dense with deep analyses of a number of companies, Collins and his team have an incredible way of distilling an enormous amount of information into clear, valuable, and actionable insights.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

Jim Collins is one of my greatest influencers. His work has only deepened my love for case studies, deep analysis, and how much there is to learn from history.

For online content, Harvard Business Review is my go-to. The publication does an excellent job of curating thought leaders and creating a dialog around the challenges we’re all facing. One of my biggest inspirations is Margaret Stewart, the director of product design at Facebook.

Kevin on Twitter: @kevinnewt
Fuzz on Twitter: @fuzzpro
Kevin on LinkedIn: