April 20, 2018

Jason Mayden: building stronger kids through Super Heroic

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Jason Mayden

Jason Mayden

Co-founder & CEO, Super Heroic

Jason Mayden is the CEO and co-founder of Super Heroic Inc., a business focused on creating quality play performance products, technology, and services for elementary school-aged children and their families.

Jason is an advisor, d.Fellow, and Media Designer at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University. He also frequently lectures at Stanford University’s prestigious Graduate School of Business and serves as an advisory board member to his undergraduate alma mater, the College for Creative Studies.

We chat about designers as entrepreneurs, what inspired him to start Super Heroic, and more.

Design in service to humanity

Eli Woolery: Jason Mayden, welcome to Conversations on DesignBetter.Co. We’re so excited to have you here, and I just wanted to start with a quote from an interview you did with Blavity in 2017:

“Design is in service to humanity’s greatest needs. We have to take an observant, empathic stance on all topics because our products are a reflection of our ability to understand the things that people say with their vibe rather than their words.”

I love that, and I was wondering if you can talk a little bit more about how observation and empathy can help designers solve some of humanity’s biggest challenges right now?

Jason Mayden: The reason why observation is critical is that it allows you to be present and able to understand the nuances of day-to-day activity and life.

Designers—and our industry in general—have suffered from, I would say, unconscious elitism. You know, we’ve been put in this position to control so much of everyone’s daily life. Some of us assume that everything we do is the correct answer, and we can’t take feedback. I’ve noticed a trend in designers being apprehensive to receive critiques from non-designers. It’s grown significantly.

When you are observing, when you are empathic, when you are a person that’s willing to listen, then you’re understanding these latent and undiscovered needs that really propel us forward into the future we desire—that we get to design and create.

Observation is a form of humility and humbleness, because for me to understand you, I have to first admit that I don’t understand you. And that admission allows me to have permission to get to know you, to learn about you, to serve you. Because creativity is a service. We are a service, and that shouldn’t be a dirty word. Our job is to serve humanity.

 “For me to understand you, I have to first admit that I don’t understand you.”

That’s what I advocate for: using gifts and talents that we couldn’t give ourselves. We couldn’t appoint these talents to ourselves, we just honed them, and crafted them, and invested in them. We didn’t select at birth what we wanted to be good at. Using these qualities to improve and empower the lives of others? That could only be done by a person acknowledging that people are different and people should be served differently.

Eli Woolery: It feels like the world right now, especially in our country, could use a little more empathy and a little more humility.

Jason Mayden: Absolutely, I agree. I think designers should go into public policy.

We’re a large industry that has no lobbying power, it really confuses me. We don’t necessarily invest our dollars collectively and in private interest groups. And the professional organizations that govern daily activities for designers don’t necessarily present themselves at Capitol Hill. So I’m a proponent of designers getting involved in politics because we’re the creators of society. It’s up to us to reimagine governance. That is the greatest designer challenge of all.

I would love to see us have more political conversations. I think designers are trained to hear hard truths, right? We deal with very messy problems, so we’re not scared of it—we actually get excited by it. It would be awesome to see us have more of these conversations.

Designers as entrepreneurs

Eli Woolery: I wanted to shift over to your new company, Super Heroic. I just spoke to another guest, Marissa Louie, who’s the co-founder of Animoodles, plush toys that are magnetic and innovative. I asked her this same question: What are some of the core skills designers possess that can make them good entrepreneurs?

Jason Mayden:  I think designers are good entrepreneurs because, if we’re trained well, we’re trained to think end to end—from the research side, from the observation side, from the insight extraction side, then the idea generation side, and to the execution of those ideas, to the production, to the positioning, and sales. I think that gives us the advantage to start. It doesn’t necessarily give us the advantage to sustain, but it definitely gives us the advantage to start.

As we grow and progress, of course we need people with very specific skills sets and backgrounds. Some are fiduciary, some are creative, some are mechanical, or technical. But I think designers have enough of a foundation to start things, to get people motivated, to prove there’s an opportunity.

That’s a gift. If you think about every project, everything we work on, it’s a startup in a sense. Every new product is a new business, it’s a new opportunity. We’re a mini startup every time we put pen to paper, every time we create an app feature, every time we create a new shoe, or a new car.

We’re trying to convince people to try something that normally they didn’t try or didn’t exist prior to us being a part of the creation of it. So I think we’re naturally inclined to be entrepreneurs, but we’re not being given the encouragement or the tools to be entrepreneurs.

I went to business school to develop that vocabulary—because it really is just vocabulary—that you have to understand for entrepreneurship. It’s different from design, but once you realize the similarities, the sky’s the limit.

Speaking design in the language of business

Eli Woolery:  That’s something Aarron Walter and I ask a lot of our guests: How do we help designers speak the language of business? I don’t know if you have any practical tips there, but I’m sure our audience would love that.

Jason Mayden: I think the core difference between the language of business and design is that there are very structured, pedagogical understandings that allow us to have a shared lexicon in business.

Meaning, how I describe a balance sheet is the same no matter where I am, right? How I describe financial reporting is the same. How I describe an evaluation of a business is the same.

With design, we don’t all learn the same way, we don’t have the same vocabulary. You can go to one school, and there’s one professor that does something one way or vice versa.

The first part of business that I do think designers can understand is that it’s all about opportunity and identifying, is it a massive market one or a small one? The notion of total addressable market…how many people actually care about the thing you want to put out into the world? We call it needfinding, right?

It’s the same principle, same outcome, same logic. It’s just that one is highly quantified, the other one highly qualified.

All we need to do, when we do our empathy research, take pictures, get our quotes, do our ethnography, is add the numbers and the demographics. Then we have a total addressable market understanding. That’s really what it is, just putting numbers behind our insights.

Once you have that, you can put value to those numbers, and you can start to do some math on capturing this value—how much will it cost for me to capture this value, how long will it take me to capture this value, and what do I expect to get from capturing this value?

Logical steps happen after you discover the opportunity. So it really comes down to realizing that looking for market opportunities is the same as needfinding, or looking for problems to solve.

Designers have been trained to look for the best and biggest problems to solve. Business operators are trained to look for biggest and largest market, for white spaces to attack. So on one hand, it’s a white space, on the other hand, it’s an unmet need. Same thing, right? The difference just lies in how we describe it and what we do with it.

Launching Super Heroic

Eli Woolery: Going back to your company for a moment, Super Heroic, could you walk me through the process of what creating and launching that was like? And could you highlight any areas where your design—or design thinking—skills played a key part?

Jason Mayden: I would say that what I did for Super Heroic started when I was seven years old. And the reason I say that is because it was the first time that I consciously remember fighting and desperately clinging to the idea of play.

I was a child in a hospital. I was on my deathbed, and I remember some of my thoughts centered around this idea of if I had one more day, one more chance to play. That’s what I was asking God to give me. I wasn’t worried about death—I was just really concerned about not being able to play with my friends.

I vividly remember that feeling of, “Man, I won’t be able to play with any of my friends anymore.” That feeling has stuck with me throughout my entire career, this thing I thought about before facing my own mortality.

The most important thing to me is playfulness, this preservation of childhood, this innocence and wonderment that comes from being a kid. And I’ve chased that my entire career, and that’s what led me to want to be Lucius Fox, to design Batman’s gear, and eventually my Batman became Michael Jordan.

While I was at Nike, I would constantly try my best to get involved in children’s products and projects. I designed a lunchbox that turned into a shoebox for Jordan. I’ve done family shoes for Derek Jeter. I’ve always wanted to touch the kid’s world because I feel like it’s so undisturbed and there’s so much opportunity. And children are so impressionable, and if we give them a foundation, we can look at play as a form of prevention.

When I left Nike, my son had gotten sick. I thought, “Now is the time to use my gifts and talents to really focus on the area I care the most about,” which was childhood.

I stepped away, came down to Silicon Valley, and went to grad school at Stanford, so it was easy for me to come back. I was familiar with the environment, familiar with the territory, confident in my ability to learn and grow.

I knew I had to humble myself and rebrand myself to be seen as an entrepreneur. Everyone would give me the time of day because they knew I knew Michael Jordan and worked on shoes. But that’s where it ended.

After that, there was no, “Let’s give you a check.” No, none of that. I spent the past five years reinventing myself, working at Stanford, joining startups, joining a venture capital firm, starting companies, learning, and failing. I needed people to see me as someone who has been in the game—who was willing to do the hard things, who was willing to admit to things he didn’t know, and who was willing to let go of my prior success so I could be ready for what was coming next.

In the summer of 2016, I finally felt like I was ready. It was after about four and a half years of deep research and repositioning myself to be viewed as someone who should be invested in. I walked away from a startup I co-founded with Steph Curry, and my good friend, Bryant Barr, and decided it was my time. I felt it in my heart, felt it in my gut that if I didn’t go, I would never do it.

I’m a big believer in doing the things that scare you the most. I don’t push my faith on anyone, but I do believe when you do stuff that scares you, it allows you to rely on whatever it is you pray to or whatever higher power you believe in. It just gives you the sense that you can’t do it on your own, that you need help.

So, I pretended I had a staff of 10 people (it was just me and 10 email addresses). I negotiated with vendors, I traveled to China a bunch of times, probably more than a hundred times over the years. I think I counted it at one point; it was 116 times I’ve been there in my life going to talk to factories, so I was comfortable there. But I also dove into the areas I didn’t know: legal compliance and supply chains. I just kind of talked to people and figured it out, and slowly built up my confidence and negotiated.

My whole goal with Super Heroic, as a company, is really driven by one basic statement, our primary job: to build stronger children instead of fixing broken adults.

Every day when I wake up, when we face a challenge, I remember that what we’re trying to do is important because we see play as a form of prevention, and if you can play together, then you can live together.

We’ve conducted deep research that’s proven there’s no difference between how children of color play versus children who aren’t of color, versus boys, versus girls, versus socioeconomic differences.

There’s zero difference in how children play, and we’ve proven it, and that’s what gives me so much hope because we could show that all of us share this unique, extended period of imagery and dependence called childhood, but we don’t invest enough in it.

I’m passionate about protecting our children because they’re growing up in a world that’s scary, and no one’s explaining to them how to navigate it. So building this company is a new discovery for me. I’m learning a lot about myself, because in times of uncertainty and unease, your true self is revealed. I’m learning a lot about childhood and what children are facing today because I have to obsess over understanding every nuance.

I also feel selfish in a lot of ways because I get to see the silver lining in building this company, like when I spend time with children. That’s the one thing I tell these designers: don’t ever lose sight spending time with your audience. As crazy as it sounds, we can get caught up in the thing we’re doing versus the people we’re serving.

When we spend time with children and ask them what they want to be when they grow up, and ask them what they think about this world, or this planet, it’s always positive. And it’s like, “Wow man, I want to hold onto that. I want to protect that, I want to fight for that because that optimism is beautiful.

That’s what helps us to continue to evolve as people. So, I don’t see Super Heroic as my job, I see it as my God-given purpose. I really do believe this is why I was born.

Books and other resources

Eli Woolery: That’s wonderful. There is so much I could dive into there. I hope we can have you on the DesignBetter.Co podcast so we can have a longer chat. In the interim, because I want to be respectful of your time, one last question: Are there any helpful books, other resources, podcasts, or blogs that you’ve leaned on in your journey?

Jason Mayden:  One I’ve read the most is The Emperor’s Handbook, written by Marcus Aurelius. It’s historic philosophy, and Marcus Aurelius was one of the last five Emperors in Rome. It’s a great book about introspective leadership, self-governance, and understanding the limitations of what it means to be a servant leader.

I also love the book Thinking Fast and Slow. That’s a really great book to read.

Anything by Ta-Nehisi Coates, because he does a great job of capturing the voice of America today. I try to be open to exploring. I’m looking at my massive bookshelf…it’s funny because people come by and visit, and they’re like, “You read all of those?” And I’m like, “Yeah, man. I don’t watch TV.”

One other book I think people should check out is Stumbling on Wins. It talks about sports, the quantification of sports, and how people win through strategy and gamesmanship. That’s a cool book, because it teaches you that the world has a rhythm to it, and that rhythm can be captured through mathematics. It’s beautiful when you’re able to see the world that way. So I try to flex between left brain and right brain books.

Eli Woolery: Jason, it’s been awesome having you here on Conversations. Hopefully, we can bring you on the podcast too at some point. Thank you so much.

Jason Mayden: Ah, no worries man, thank you.


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