Shanon Marks – Chief Innovation Officer of MU/DAI

Productivity is pretty easy in a startup environment. It’s like swimming in the ocean: You can stop, but that’s not going to work out well for you.

Shanon Marks, chief innovation officer of MU/DAI, has been defining the experience in digital and physical product design for more than 15 years. He creates groundbreaking experiences that synthesize digital products into the physical world.

His work focuses on the application of emerging technology and harvested data to augment and improve the human experience, accelerating the market through innovation and emerging technology.

He simplifies technology through design, leveraging the analytical power of digital to create predictive and invisible experiences. He’s constantly searching for the innovations that will fundamentally improve our lives and our planet.

Where did the idea for MU/DAI come from?

There has been a shift in the opportunity space that design firms occupy. The acceleration of emerging technology, mobile, wearables, and virtual and augmented reality is exponential. We like to say that the future got here faster than some were expecting.

MU/DAI is a new kind of design firm that leverages design thinking with here-and-now technology to help organizations achieve the pace of a startup with the practicality of a Fortune 500 company.

PJ Bickett, my partner, friend, and clairvoyant entrepreneur, knew that the market was ready in quarter one of 2014. It’s a funny story: We were walking through Los Angeles Union Station on our way back from a pitch (we were working elsewhere at the time). As Los Angelenos were hustling to their trains and making their way home, PJ asked me, “Are you free tomorrow? Good. Meet me at 35 E. Wacker. You’re the vision holder.”

Those words changed my life. The next day, I was standing in front of VCs and pitching a new kind of design firm to solve new kinds of problems. MU/DAI is yin and yang: balance, innovation, and practicality. MU/DAI is a facet of PJ and me. It’s a part of us, and that’s core to the story. Our organization is focused on humanizing digital, and we feel strongly about the importance of that statement.

Digital and physical technology is becoming more intimate and accelerating exponentially. It’s our responsibility to ensure humanity is part of this acceleration.

Today, we’re wearing tech. Tomorrow, it will be embedded and merged. We design humanized experiences to ensure that — no matter where or how — the experience is empathetic, loving, and human.

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

I think I’m afraid of “typical.” I go out of my way to ensure that “typical” isn’t part of the day, and that helps quite a bit. Invention and problem-solving are the result of chaos, and I do my best to keep a little chaos in my day.

I wake up early, read, and think about how we can change the world. I ask myself, “What’s missing?” and “What can be improved?” I’m constantly building (and breaking) things and writing.

Writing is a key part of my day. It’s the one space (for now) that ideas can emerge without boundaries. I can capture the perfect state of something and imagine how it should be. These ideas serve to inspire me. Some make it a little further. Most do not, but it’s the process that’s important.

Productivity is pretty easy in a startup environment. It’s like swimming in the ocean: You can stop, but that’s not going to work out well for you.

The majority of the day is dedicated to our team — refining our strategy and building the tools we need to be successful. I have a background in creative direction, so I’m constantly processing the world in visual terms.

The end of the day is playtime. Play is critical. It’s when my best ideas come. I’m a windsurfer and surfer, and when I’m in the ocean, the entire world slips away and becomes quiet. I can think. Ideas emerge, and I find inspiration. I’ve never been a fan of resting, but it’s a bit easier to sleep once I’ve exhausted myself.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Bringing ideas to life is easier than you think. It’s not magic; it’s persistence. MU/DAI was an idea; now it’s a reality. It takes time and the brilliance of those around you.

In a past life, I founded a 3D printing startup. We designed, built, and sailed the world’s first 3D-printed windsurfing equipment. Nobody had done anything like that before. We combined so many emerging technologies that there was no playbook — no Google search result. That’s the most exciting place to be. It’s when you know you’re breaking new ground, and it requires resolve and partners. You have to inspire those around you and make them see your vision. Once you’ve done that, anything is possible.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

Virtual reality is going to change the world — starting now. I think of it less like a technology and more like a place. The technology (e.g., Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, and Microsoft HoloLens) is just a way to see this new world. It excites me because it isn’t bound by physical realities. It will open up new ways to communicate, experience the imaginable, and write a new chapter in the human story. VR will give us the ability to be anywhere and see far beyond our natural abilities. It’s an inward and networked experience.

There’s been a fair amount of criticism about the viability of VR, but VR has grown exponentially. The technology is inexpensive and is becoming increasingly more common. Mattel just released the View-Master for a new generation. My two daughters are walking and flying in virtual worlds that I’m building for them. At MU/DAI, we’re designing practical applications of the technology for our clients and prototyping simulated environments as part of our innovation lab.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I tell stories. It’s the one thing at which I excel. I love watching someone as I tell a story, whether it’s one person or an audience. It’s the act of making somebody believe in something, and it’s an incredible experience. It makes me productive because, as the chief innovation officer, I have a responsibility to take our organization and our clients into new spaces. I can’t do that if I can’t show them what that future looks like.

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

I worked in restaurants for years and started as a bus boy. The work was hard, physically demanding, and dirty. I was 16, and it was my uncle’s restaurant. I knew I had to work harder than everyone else, and I did.

For the first time in my life, I made an instant correlation between hustle and results. The faster I worked, the more tables we served. That meant happy customers, happy servers, and a happy uncle. My hard work was rewarded, and I was a server a few weeks later. It changed my entire perspective on work. I arrived early, stayed until the lights were off, and always smiled.

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

Well, if I were to start over as a kid, I would listen to my parents more closely. It’s funny. They know everything; we’re just too stupid as kids to understand it. All of my experiences to date have made me who I am, and I’m thankful for that. I can’t say I would walk a different path, but I would walk it faster.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I question everything.

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

We’re passionate in every aspect of our business, and it shows in everything we do. It’s not enough to be passionate about the work; you have to bring the same energy and commitment to the business itself. That energy and belief resonates and influences people. It helps us get great work and hire amazing practitioners. It becomes the quality we’re known for. When you help people believe in something, you can accomplish anything. This is a powerful growth strategy.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

We fail every day, and we use these failures to help us steer a better course. Being an entrepreneur means you can sail without a chart. It’s the desire to go and explore without being given the answer. When you accept that, you also accept quite a bit of failure.

I think successful entrepreneurs use those failures like sonar: You ping the room and see what’s there, avoid obstacles, and overcome challenges — always with a sense of direction. You know where you have to go; the path is the unknown.

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

Hyperlocal microleasing. The smart building space is finally coming online. Historically, smart buildings have focused on energy savings and optimization, and there’s a cap to that value. Even a zero-emission, zero-consumption building has a limit on its value.

I think there’s a massive opportunity to create an excess-capacity platform, giving individuals or organizations access to any open office space based on their current location. The combination of sensors, cloud-based platforms, and mobile technology enables a whole new kind of market. An organization such as Regus could enable a whole new network of flexible, on-demand spaces and essentially become the Airbnb for commercial space — especially if the company had a partner such as MU/DAI to help.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

The Amazon Echo is an incredible piece of technology. It’s like having J.A.R.V.I.S. (Tony Stark’s virtual butler in the “Iron Man” films) in your house. It’s the dawn of the invisible interface responding to your commands. It’s a beautiful piece of technology that becomes part of your life effortlessly. This is just the beginning. Artificial intelligence is growing up fast and is finding its way into our lives. Echo (which responds to the name “Alexa” in our home) is exciting. It’s there when you need it and invisible when you don’t.

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

There are so many great tools now. I have this theory about the “bell curve of horrible” that describes how far we’ve come in terms of advancing technology and the role of experience design.

For the past 25 years, we endured terrible interfaces that made working with software unpleasant. Experience design has changed that, along with the democratization of technology. Slack is an incredible communication tool. It’s changing the way we work. Dropbox is an essential tool for any startup. Harvest makes time tracking effortless. The competition is for a better experience, and that’s great for customers.

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

Parallel thinking is the key to innovation and invention. Looking outside of your problem set or area of expertise helps that. “101 Things I Learned in Architecture School” is a collection of complex ideas distilled into simple lessons. It’s the result of thoughtfulness and brings clarity to conceptual topics. The subject matter is architecture, but parallels and metaphors are universal. It’s the kind of book that makes you want to write in the margins.

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

Nikola Tesla created the world we live in today. Powered by his inventions, the impact of alternating current is prevalent in everything we do. His story is incredible, both personally and professionally. Tesla battled internal demons as much as he created life-changing technologies, and that inspires me.

Elon Musk is the inventor genius of our generation, changing the fundamentals of our society: how we consume energy, how we transport ourselves, and how we reach for the stars. He’s an unstoppable force.