T.J. Cook – CEO at CauseLabs

I help grow leaders around me. If I can build leaders, I know I’m becoming a better leader.

T.J. Cook is CEO at CauseLabs. He facilitates team building and culture building as CauseLabs builds tools that impact people. He has helped design over 100 tangible solutions, while assembling an expert team of strategists, designers, and engineers who partner with clients around the world to prototype, win funding for, design, build, and launch digital innovation breakthroughs.

T.J. is a facilitator and visionary who loves shepherding ideas and teams through early problem solving phases, bringing a startup-like feel to early scale and breakout scale programs. He is currently in the middle of a two-year commitment serving as a member and facilitator of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Humanitarian Response, which aims to significantly improve public-private cooperation in response to natural disaster. T.J. was hand-picked for this high profile role because of his ability to bring design thinking and facilitation to this global council.

Drawing from personal experience as an educator, mentor, reader, runner, musician, and Spanish speaker, T.J. takes an interdisciplinary, hands-on approach to innovation and loves bringing skilled individuals together in fast-paced, well-designed workshops that kick start new solutions using emerging technologies.

Where did the idea for My Story come from?

The idea for My Story came from our lab program in which staff are given space and time to innovate once per month. Brian Vanaski, a long-time CauseLabber used the program to explore a solution to a problem he observed at home. His then-eight-year-old sister walked into the room with a bunch of pieces of paper and writing implements, frustrated. She was trying to put together a story but having trouble organizing it, leaving her feeling defeated. Brian had a simple thought: I wonder if an iPad app could help with this. His sister, at that time, was highly creative but still learning the ropes of writing. So Brian used our lab program to buddy up with another CauseLabber, Mohammed El-Serougi, to prototype an app that helped kids use the iPad’s touch interface, camera, and voice recording feature to make multi-page stories. That prototype, built in a day, became My Story – Book Maker for Kids. Today, four years later, My Story has led to partnerships with LEGO, has earned a Parent’s Choice award, and boasts over 770,000 downloads around the world. It is just one of many solutions for social good developed by our team.

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

I typically work no more than 2 or 3 hours continuously, especially in the afternoon. From about 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. is heavy email and communication with different team members. Then, depending on the day, I may be on several Skype calls or deep into a new strategic initiative. Every day is different. I stay productive by recognizing my natural rhythms. I learned long ago I’m terrible at action in the afternoon. Most days are broken up with a 3-to 6-mile run — sometimes squeezed between two important calls, sometimes earlier in the day, and sometimes as a “mind cleanser” before dinner.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I use a lot of plain white paper and pencil to sketch and to get ideas out of my head on to paper. On the paper I might draw a model of a new program or a user interface for a specific technology concept. Then I’ll snap a pic of it within Evernote so I know it’s stored away safe somewhere. I also do a lot of writing, opening a Google Doc to imagine what a new value proposition might look like on the day of launch, using the press release format as a tool that quickly enables me to think from several different perspectives.

Then I share the idea with someone I rely on, like my wife, my close friend Azin, any CauseLabber, even my children (9, 5, and 4). Sharing the idea in some visual form keeps me from allowing it to stew and/or die without having a chance.

From there, many ideas of course don’t go anywhere, but a small fraction do. The discipline of ideation ensures the numbers continue to work out, and I don’t suffer from analysis paralysis, only sharing ideas that my gut says are “winners.”

What’s one trend that really excites you?

The trend of co-housing is a recent personal study of mine. I look around at the typical American neighborhood and am left feeling that we are very stuck in a state of disconnection. I have Next Door implemented in my neighborhood and 58 people are signed up, but the level of interaction feels basic when it could be so much more. In neighborhood social networks we are still mapping current cultural behaviors, which are inherently limited — at least from my experience. I’ve realized that there is some deep design thinking and big-step taking that needs to happen, not just a software technology. What if we were much more strategic about where we lived, not only in terms of “how good is the neighborhood” and “how nice is the house” but in terms of “what community am I joining” and “how will I join an intentional, designed group of people doing and sharing life together?” I think there is a lot of room for innovation in how we build our local communities, but if we crack the nut it would have a huge snowball effect on society as a whole.

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

Running. Usually 3 to 5 miles, sometimes a 6 to 8 mile weekender.

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

One sweltering New Mexico summer I sorted bolts for the Fusion Technology department at a national laboratory. When not sweating in the transportainers (first world problems, I know), I was under the sometimes-condescending nose of an old scientist in the main office building. I was not abused by any means, nor was the job completely unbearable. But, I did learn to create opportunities within the menial tasks, to make things fun, never to wait for it to become fun. That sense of self-management and attitude have always been huge drivers. For example, one day I had to make umpteen copies of a multi-page document in the copier room. All alone, as each job completed, I would do 5 pushups. All of a sudden copying became fun and I built muscle mass. I must have completed 150 pushups that day. Boom!

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

I wish I would have taken entrepreneurial risks earlier. “I started my own business at 11,” etc. Standing where I am, I do not regret my life’s experience to date, but I would have started the entrepreneurial journey a little earlier, because once you start learning through experience, you start improving fundamentally.

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

I help grow leaders around me. If I can build leaders, I know I’m becoming a better leader.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

Following my heart. I’m a feeler first, data second type without formal business training. Recognizing that experience as a strength rather than a weakness has helped me build CauseLabs into a soulful company doing amazing work with amazing people in amazing ways. If it doesn’t feel right, I don’t do it or I change it. I’ve learned to trust that initial gut feeling rather than repress it for the sake of “the way business is usually done.”

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

We CEOs are always fretting sales and marketing. I made a hire based on friendship more than fit. The person hired definitely made great contributions to the company, but it just wasn’t the best path for either the person or the company. Six months later I was looking again and the sales pipeline was not where I wanted it to be and business did suffer. I overcame it by owning the failure and being solutions oriented about the solution with the team. Now the sales role is being played by someone who jumped over from project management and that person is doing great.

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

Here’s a problem/opportunity I’ve seen. Retail staff, parking lot attendants, and the like often have a lot of dead time between customers. I was talking to my barber the other day and she had just been waiting for customers for an hour. What if there was a platform that allowed these folks, from their mobile device or the POS computer, to perform micro tasks, whether market research based, usability based, or other crowdsourcing-friendly use cases? The business would get a cut, the employee would get a cut, and the problem issue would get nimble, quick feedback. Best of all, the problems would be designed for retail-staff friendliness, leveraging cognitive surplus to increase employee engagement and thus job satisfaction.

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

I just signed my wife and I up for a 5k run two days from now. I’ve never spent money on outdoor activities and thought, “Dang, I should have spent that on something else.”

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

I’m definitely a Google guy. Gmail, Calendar, Drive — the holy trinity. I got seriously giddy when Google Calendar for iOS came out. I use Evernote for stow-it-away ideas and collaboration notes. I have a fetish for “ideation apps” like Paper, Forge, Mindmeister, and the like. I love how each one is capable of helping me think about ideas differently, teasing out subtle connections I may not otherwise have happened upon. I use Skype and Dropbox, big time. Monosnap is great for snapping/annotating/sharing screenshots with the team. These utilities just work and make working remotely pleasant.

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

Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux. I’ve never met him in person, but I feel a kinship with Laloux. When this book came out, it was the validation and challenge I needed to change our governance structure at CauseLabs. Now, we are coming into complete alignment with our purpose, culture, clientele, partners, and work. I felt these were all very aligned already but was just waiting for our governing structure to come alongside.

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

Peter Diamandis
Jonathan Lewis
Daniel Pink
Hugo Araujo (Spanish)
Brad Feld


T. J. Cook on LinkedIn:
T. J. Cook on Twitter:  @tjcook