Set goals, make a concrete plan, and then just keep chugging along – Tamara Olson, Founder, Studio Simpatico

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Tamara Olson is the founder of Studio Simpatico. It is a creative design and digital studio based in Manhattan. It collaborate with clients who need help creating experiences that engage and delight their audiences.

Tamara spoke with ScaleUp Magazine about her life and work.

Tell us about your professional journey so far?

My professional journey goes back to the mid-90s when I was frustrated by the limitations of pre-made Geocities templates. I stayed up searching Yahoo! until 4 am until I figured out HTML. (The next day of fifth grade was tough to get through.) 23 years later that’s still how I work: keep tackling and researching things I don’t understand online until I figure them out.

Though most of my full-time jobs before starting Studio Simpatico were design-focused (UX design at Google on Ads and Classroom, an internship on the Apple.com design team, UX design for the Observer), I’ve always stayed pretty “in the weeds” and hands-on with front-end development. The biggest change for me professionally was three years ago when I walked away from an amazing job at an amazing company (Google) because I felt the entrepreneurial itch. That’s when Studio Simpatico was born.

Tell us about your company. What challenges you faced while growing your company and what you did to fix them.

We’re a small design and development shop based in Manhattan. We mostly take project-based work and are now three full-timers and four to five part-timers. We’re still growing, so I’d say the challenges are very much present tense. We didn’t take out any loans or start with any significant capital, so for us, it’s really been about slow, sustainable growth. Carving out time to grow (create a culture and positive work environment, interview people, figure out how to delegate, train, look for new business, etc.)–while continuing to keep current clients happy and bill enough to keep the lights on– is really, really hard. Not impossible, but grueling. Finding a partner in crime in Sinan Imre (who is hard-working and talented, but also extremely good-natured) has made it much more fun.

Your Successes/failures in life.

I have plenty of both, but honestly, I don’t really believe in failure. I think success is a numbers game. The more you put yourself out there, the better chance you have of getting a big win. Successful people with long lists of accomplishments usually have long lists of failures, but the good thing is you don’t have to include those in your bio or speaker notes. People care about the awards and jobs you’ve won. They don’t list the rejections. I try to give myself pep talks to that effect, especially as a woman. I think in a lot of ways women are less encouraged to take risks.

What choices did you make in your life which made a significant difference in your life?

I made a decision a little over three years ago to leave an amazing company (Google really is as good to their employees as the press will have you believe) to take a big risk. I couldn’t be happier, even if sometimes I do need five cups of coffee to get by on three hours of sleep.

Walk us through your workday?

Every day’s a bit different, which is what I love. I whiteboard with other designers. I keep our office stocked with yummy snacks. I field emails. I code WordPress themes. I visit with old, new, and prospective clients. I think about how we can make the studio space more collaborative. I stay up until 4 am researching things I don’t understand.

How do you keep yourself productive and motivated?

I picked something I love, so that makes it easier. But I do try to keep a prioritized to-do list, and at the beginning of each day map out what I plan to get done with specific pockets of time. I think it’s called the Pomodoro technique.

What do you do to keep yourself on the growth path?

I’m easily bored, so that happens pretty organically. When things start feeling easy or rote, I kick it up a notch and give myself a new challenge that feels impossible. When that starts getting easy, rinse, lather, repeat.

What tools/apps do you use for managing work and life?

In life: ToDoIst, Gmail.

At work: FreshBooks, Harvest, Basecamp.

Your favorite books?

It used to be A Handmaid’s Tale… but that was back in simpler times.

People who have inspired you and made a difference in your life.

I had a fantastic manager (Sam) during a good chunk of my tenure at Google. He had a great mind and was dogged about asking questions. One of the biggest problems I see with young designers when they’re designing complex enterprise software is a reluctance to ask “stupid questions” because they’re afraid of seeming dumb. You’re going to seem a lot dumber if four months after you begin working on a project you present designs that don’t make any sense.

How do you hire your team? What traits do you look for while hiring?

I believe good teams happen when people with superpowers work together effectively. I look for people with superpowers who are also kind, collaborative and self-starters. That’s not a particularly original answer I know, but it works.

What advice did you get which changed your life?

A former manager told me that when you receive advice, keep in mind the source. The (usually well-intentioned) feedback giver is telling you things that helped him and that he wishes he would’ve known somewhere along the way. It’s not always going to be relevant or right for you. Sometimes it is. But sometimes it isn’t. Tara Mohr talks about that in Playing Big: don’t be so eager for feedback that you take it all. Always consider the source. I tend to be overly empathetic and a chronic mediator. This helped me keep that in check, and not forget to listen to my own gut.

What advice would you give to people looking for success and growth in personal and professional life?

Set aside some serious time to figure out what you want to do and what makes you happy. Set goals, make a concrete plan, and then just keep chugging along. Be genuine and nice to people. And don’t forget to hydrate. 🙂

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