First of all, how are you and your Family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Andrew Mayfield: Firstly, I feel very privileged right now to live and work in New Zealand. It was always a great place to be, of course, and now that we’re living through a pandemic it feels even better. As a country we have, so far, avoided widespread COVID-19 infections.
This doesn’t mean the lockdown period we had was easy — it was strict — and trying to run a freshly remote company while also playing school teacher, and concerned citizen was indeed a challenge.
However, as a family, we have kept some of the good things from our lockdown running. More board games, more home cooking, and less racing around in general.
Tell us about you, your Career, how you Founded or Joined Optimal Workshop
Andrew Mayfield: I founded a company to “make websites” with a good friend in 2002. We quickly pivoted to specialise in online ordering websites, point-of-sale systems, kitchen and franchise management software for fast food businesses. It was a lot of fun, and we eventually sold out to our biggest client in 2009.
Almost immediately, I joined the then tiny Optimal Workshop as interim CTO for 3 months, to oversee the development of a billing system. When that was done, our founder left to pursue other ideas, and I became the CEO. It’s been a decade since then. We’ve come a long way from the windowless room and 4 people we began this journey with!
How does Optimal Workshop innovate?
Andrew Mayfield: At Optimal Workshop, we do some things a little differently. We’re focused on the long term, sustainable growth — we’re organically funded, and we’ve tried to remain a small and focused team. We’ve been trying to build a company that lasts, a product that can remain relevant indefinitely, and an environment our people are enthusiastic and proud to be a part of.
We innovate by staying close to real customer needs. In practical terms, we look for things that our customers spend a lot of time on, with or without our software, understand why they do it at all, and then do what we can to minimize or eliminate that activity for them.
We’ve structured the company to support everyday innovation. This starts with an insights team made up of user researchers and data scientists to explore and evaluate opportunities and prototypes for and with our multi-disciplined, autonomous delivery teams.
For a long time, we got caught up in maintenance and iterative improvement cycles. This was primarily due to having teams dedicated to individual, existing products.
Nowadays, our delivery teams are dedicated to broad opportunity spaces, which cover and complement our existing products. This ensures we’re able to think beyond the most-requested enhancements and work to understand and pull the customer’s brighter future into our own space.
How the Coronavirus Pandemic affects your Business and how are you coping?
Andrew Mayfield: Initially, we reasoned to ourselves “what is one of the first things that companies cut when things get tight? Research”.
This made us uncomfortable, knowing that research may drop off (and it may do yet), but also knowing that smart companies might see an increased need to understand customer behavior right through the pandemic. We just weren’t sure what was going to happen.
The earliest signals weren’t great. For the first couple of weeks, we saw several freelance UX practitioners unsubscribing, citing variations on the theme of “I’ll be back!
We thought this might snowball, but then lots of other accounts began adding more users, and bigger deals came onboard faster than ever before. Teams all over the world have been going remote, and people need to do more of their user research remotely than ever before.
Obviously, we were also going remote at this time.
A lot of our internal practices revolved around in-person conversation. Adopting more asynchronous communication techniques has been really excellent for us. We have some team members based in other cities and around the world — so it has always been important, but previously not urgent enough, that we work in this way.
The pandemic made it urgent and I hope we never go back! It is a privilege to spend time together again, here in NZ, and we are more conscious of doing so when it is the best choice, rather than as the default.
So our business is good and better than ever before. We remain cautiously optimistic about our future. We know things continue to be difficult for many people around the world. We hope that the important work our customers are doing with our software, understanding human needs in their own context, will continue to contribute to the creation of better experiences for all over time.
Did you have to make Difficult Choices, and what are the Lessons Learned?
Andrew Mayfield: We are an organically funded business. We rely on our revenue and customers to continue our growth. We love this; it gives a strong reason to stay closely connected to our customers and their evolving needs.
Indeed the entire SaaS business model is aligned in this way; we want our customers to stay subscribed indefinitely, and they want us to make ever-better tools for user research.
When the pandemic was breaking, and we weren’t sure which way revenue would go, we made a tough choice to freeze all new hiring. This was tough because we had some real needs at the time. We had reorganized a number of our teams in anticipation of some new key hires.
However, we chose to focus our energy and our resources on protecting and supporting the team we already had, and not to continue with the cost and distraction of new hires until it felt safe to do so again.
The biggest lesson I learned from this is that we can always do a little more with less if we take a moment to stop and think.
How do you Deal with Stress and Anxiety, how do you Project yourself and Optimal Workshop in the Future?
Andrew Mayfield: Personally, when I feel anxious or stressed, I tend to stop, think, and write. By myself. Writing helps me to clarify my thinking and build my self-awareness. Sometimes I write to myself. Other times I write to others. Much of this writing is never shared.
I’ve noticed that ambiguity is one of the biggest sources of anxiety, for myself and others. So my thinking and writing usually end up helping me to identify and name my unknowns and exploring those often leads to learning about new unknowns. That, more often than not, leads to buying a book or two.
Eventually, this leads to work that needs to be done or delegated, and that is typically far less stressful.
Who are your Competitors? And how do you plan to Stay in the Game?
Andrew Mayfield: There’s plenty of products out there jostling to be a better brain for your company, Optimal Workshop aspires to be a better heart.
A UX researcher these days has a lot of methods and tools to choose from when facing a new problem – over 200 at my last count. Like many SaaS companies, we still compete most heavily with shareable spreadsheets.
We hope that by helping organisations worldwide to view matters through the eyes of the people they serve, we can play our part in creating better experiences for everyone.
Your Final Thoughts
Andrew Mayfield: We now find ourselves having stepped forward in time, in the context of patterns of work for knowledge workers anyway, so what happens now?