To Build A Truly Creative Workplace, Hire For Outside Passions


Evie Nagy

August 26, 2014

FiftyThree is the company behind the high-tech wooden iPad stylus Pencil and popular sketching app Paper (not to be confused with the Facebook app Paper launched earlier this year that took FiftyThree by surprise).

While Paper has impressive features for drawing and color mixing, it was designed as much as anything as a productivity app, to instantly and flexibly get new ideas onto, well, Paper.

“People are very familiar with productivity tools like the word processor, the spreadsheet,” says FiftyThree cofounder and CEO Georg Petschnigg. “What we realized is, ‘Look, when you’re on the go, you need creative productivity, where you can go to think and develop new ideas.’ One of the things here at FiftyThree is that we deeply understand and love the creative process.”

Georg Petschnigg

Georg PetschniggImage courtesy of FiftyThree

That’s an easy statement to make, but in building its everyday collaborative process, FiftyThree puts its making where its mouth is. The company has a one-to-one engineer-to-designer ratio, and an interestingly holistic approach to hiring: every employee should excel at something outside of their job responsibilities.

“If you want to build an ambidextrous organization, you need a set of different personalities that work well together but also have some very different reasoning skills,” says Petschnigg. “That means that when we hire, we hire people who are very good at collaborating, and the best proxy we found for this is to find someone who is good in a core discipline that’s relevant to the work that we’re doing–engineering, design, sales, legal, whatnot–but then they also need to be good at something else. It doesn’t really matter what that other thing is, as long as you got really good at it. The reason is that at this point you’ve shown that you’ve worked yourself up at least twice in two very different disciplines, and you learn a certain level of humility out of that.”

For just a few examples: FiftyThree’s publicist Rachel Romano is a best-selling author; product manager Eric Rockey is both a Microsoft veteran and a cultural documentarian; cofounder and designer Andrew Allen is an award-winning filmmaker.

The varied expertise of FiftyThree’s staff goes beyond its role in collaboration skills, however–the company uses it directly to both educate each other and work on creative projects together. FiftyThree hosts a Creative Brownbag Lunch series, wherein employees give a presentation about their outside passions. For example, software engineer Matthew Chen recently gave a talk called What Is Programming? (also posted to Medium) that connects programming to playwriting. The presentations to date have connected people’s side projects to their jobs, but Petschnigg says they will soon go more in-depth into the outside endeavors, including master classes on wine making, North Korean history, and ballroom dancing.

“People who are good collaborators also love teaching and learning,” says Petschnigg. FiftyThree will also bring in external experts to teach new skills, including fashion artist Danielle Meder, who helped the staff livesketch New York Fashion Week in 2013.

Creative collaboration among staff also extends to office rituals. “When you celebrate someone’s birthday, typically, people just bring in cake or something like that,” says Petschnigg. “But at FiftyThree–cake is good, make no mistake–but we oftentimes create collaborative birthday sketches.”

Using the company’s own products, designer Allen Lau leads these projects to celebrate employee milestones, which in addition to birthday sketches have included designing onesies for employees’ new babies. And for Lau’s birthday, the staff created a collaborative GIF comprised of 25 different images.

When you build and develop an organization this way, says Petschnigg, “you have different ways of thinking and different ways of thought. You’re biased towards people who are great at collaborating, and then you provide this space where people can express their other, their side passions. But then they aren’t really side passions in that sense because they do, then, inform the work that we do together.”

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