Principle Guided Decisions with Cam Spilman.
It was a pleasure to welcome Cameron Spilman onto our 7th episode of the Make Things Better Podcast.
- Cameron Spilman
- Sep 29 2021
Tom: Hello and welcome to Episode Seven of the Make Things Better Podcast. Today I have Cam Spilman from Paper on the show to talk to us about Paper's principles. So thanks a lot for coming on Cam, how are you doing today?
Cam: Alright thanks Tom. Thanks very much for having me on, I really appreciate it. How are you?
Tom: Yeah cheers for coming on and yes I am good thanks. I am looking forward to talking a little more about these principles and we had a chat about this a few weeks ago and we were kind of getting into the whole philosophy behind this and it just piqued my interest, so hopefully it will be a fairly interesting podcast. So, my first question is, how did Paper start and how was it founded because I know you are one of the three founders right?
Cam: That's right. There's myself and two other people called Mark and Jon. We founded Paper just over 5 years ago to be a user research and design studio to specialise in that. For anyone who doesn't know, user research is doing research to understand what people need from a service or a product. Design can take many forms, right from designing how you would react with something, what the content is and right up to what the strategy is for delivering it. What the policies are and processes. When we talk about design maybe we are thinking more about how something works and maybe less about how something is aesthetically, if that makes sense. So yes, the three of us founded it 5 years ago. We'd known each other for about 10 years I think and we'd just come back together to do a project on an airport and they asked us to go in and do research and design to understand what the needs would be of people travelling to and from an airport and figure out how to connect everything. So, if you go into an airport you want to know when your flight is, how you are going to get there, what facilities there are there for you and your family, good facilities for kids that sort of thing. A lot of that you do via the web but then it's got a physcial part to it as well and they realised they needed to connect those two things. Anyway, we had a really good time doing that. As you can imagine, there are loads of interesting things to think about in doing that stuff. But, the outcome was, they had already made lots of technology choices that constrained our choices. They had made those choices before we had got into it. We realised that what we wanted to do was create a separate thing that just did research and design before anyone makes big choices or big commitments to technology. So that was sort of the beginning of it and you mentioned these principles before, that's what we did. We sat down and thought about what the principles are of a good, modern, research and design studio, before we had a name or even a concept of our business. We were just interested in, there must be a way of improving this situation.
Tom: Yeah that's quite an interesting background to it and it's interesting to hear that often it can be the research that has to come first before all of the other choices are made. Anyway, what are Paper's main principles and then we will move onto where they come from afterwards?
Cam: That makes sense. So yes if you put yourself in our shoes 5 years ago, we were writing a list of things that we had seen gone wrong in other places and other stuff that we aspired to and hoped for. So, on that list we had loads of sentences like 'wouldn't it be nice to just work and meet with nice people' so we started with that. Eventually, what we got down to was four, what we call principles, because what we understand principles to be are the sort of foundation. So, before we had a name for the business, before anything else. So, if you do nothing else you do these four things: We value our principles more than money We value leg-ups and free work as much as paid work We invest our profit back into the business in the form of R&D We are self-funded and independent So, they are the four founding principles that we've kept to this day
Tom: Okay, and am I right in thinking there was something to do with how because those principles ensure that you are quite sustainable, there is something about how you have the resources for the next 6 months as well?
Cam: That's right. That top principles which Faye who is in our team calls the Mama Principles which I absolutely love 'We value our principles more than money'. I think if you look at that, it can sound quite flippant like we just don't care about money but that's not true. We were absolutely skint when we started Paper. Money was something we really had to worry about. What we mean by that is that money can also make you make compromised decisions. So for instance, if you are skint, like we were in the first year and we need work and we're figuring out how to pay rent and someone comes along with a project and says 'Would you do this work?' and it wasn't the type of work we wanted to do. We were just wanting to do research and design and they were asking us for something else. Having those principles, made it easier for us to turn that work down even though we needed to pay for rent or whatever. So, that's what I mean when I say we are not flippant about that. And how that has impacted us as a business, if that's something people are interested in, it means that we think about how we grow. At any one time at Paper, there is a team of nine people but we often have upwards of 30 partners, freelancers working on projects. One way you could look at that is 'why don't we have 30 employees then? Instead of freelancers?' But, the reason we don't is so that we can save money and make sure we can sustain ourselves if all of the work disappears tomorrow. Let's say there's a global pandemic or something, although that wasn't the outcome of that but if there was some other unforeseen event, can we make sure that we can all be comfortable so we can wait for the right piece of work to come along and no one's worried about it? So, we value our principles more than money is about having a healthy sort of respect for money and how it can effect your choices.
Tom: Yeah that makes a lot of sense. And I guess you don't have quite as much responsibility in a way for all 30 people? Because as you say they are freelance, or they're not actually, they're not relying on you, that's the main thing right?
Cam: That's a whole other interesting topic, I really love that topic. It is a different relationship to people who are employed. But, actually, the way that we work with our freelancers and partners, because we specialise, we always need to work with partners right. So we've had to invest a lot of time into thinking about how we have proper meaningful relationships. If someone just turns up having never worked with Paper, 'How do they know how we work? How do they know how we interact?'. So, we are just about to do a talk about this with Manchester Digital on the 28th about how when we work with freelancers and partners, we start paying them straight away for their time. Get that money thing out of the way straight away and then pretty much the rest of the process is similar to how someone who works at Paper would work. We write things called user guides that are a really useful way of talking about how you like to work, what situations would make you anxious, what sort of situations you look for, how you like communication to work, those sort of things. So, the effect is we work just like how we would work with our team that is employed, it just happens to have a different commercial model and those people have the freedom to go and pick other jobs and work with other people which again benefits us ultimately.
Tom: Yeah, that's really cool. And I imagine building up those relationships and caring for those people a little more, does that lead to them coming back to you and you working with them more often in the future as well?
Cam: Yeah. I think so, without blowing our own horn so to speak. Yeah. I think that's the feedback we've got and it seems really genuine that people are really keen to work with us. Because unfortunately, I think not every business treats people as well when they're freelancing, they can treat them less like people and just someone to come and do a thing and then disappear. So in answer to your question, yeah, it does seem like that. I don't know why anyone wouldn't.
Tom: It's interesting. I guess one of the reasons why Paper might treat freelancers like that is because at the heart of Paper it does seem that people in this field of design and research, that kind of field you need people who can build up relationships and understand people. It's about people right? That's one of the fundamental things, I seem to be understanding so far anyway. I am very new to all of this. I have only really been in this kind of field for 4 or 5 months. Or at least talking to people in this field, because I am more of a social media and marketing kind of guy right now. Where-as with another company where it is less focused on people and more focused on transactions. I don't know like going to KFC or something. They are maybe not going to care so much about their Deliveroo or Uber drivers who come in and collect food because it's all very transactional and people aren't at the center of it. But, with Paper, people are at the very, very center so that spreads out and is pervasive throughout everything that you do right?
Cam: Yeah, I don't think I could say it better than you Tom. You're spot on. It's about putting people first. In my mind often what you are really doing is slowing things down to take the time to build a relationship and understand other people's perspectives and build empathy, those sort of things. And, also to think long-term. So, sometimes going back to turning down work for instance. That can make people feel sort of rejected if you turn down a project. We've been in a situation before where we said no to something just because we didn't think we had the time to do it as well as we wanted. But over the long-term that client actually came back to us, I think it was a whole year later, and at that point they understood why we had made the decision we had really wanted to work with us again and we could at that point. It's just about taking a long-term approach understanding that in the short-term if it feels like a challenging decision, that doesn't mean you should duck it. It's worth taking the time to get things right.
Tom: Absolutely. I think I read that example on your website or you might be on about another one. But, there was an example on the website where there was some work and it maybe didn't fit with what you were doing at the time so you chose not to do that work and then yeah as you say, a year later or whenever, they came back. And I think it was an even bigger project as well, the example I am thinking of that was on the website anyway. So that's really cool and I think they probably respected you even more as well for turning down that initial work because maybe it just wasn't where you were at for whatever reason.
Cam: Yeah that's it, we are talking about the same example. They are our biggest client now. It's funny how things turn out.
Tom: Yeah that's awesome. That's a really cool example of why you should maybe focus on the long-term instead of the short-term. Has there been any challenges at all in terms of adhering to these main principles?
Cam: Yeah. Well I talked about, you know, turning down work and that's challenging especially if you're skint. You need some money coming in. There's quite a few. So I haven't really talked through the other principles and how they work. Another one is about how we reinvest our profit into what we call R&D. The result of that is everyone at Paper works on client work for four days a week and they have one day a week where they can work on their own product or projects or whatever. There are a few agencies doing that sort of thing and I think we are doing it slightly differently. One of the challenges with that is to then explain to clients who work maybe a five day week why we work four days a week and what the benefit is to them. So, having those sort of conversations, again, at when you're at that very early stage of getting to know each other. We want it to be smooth and for them to not feel like 'Aw these lot are going to be really difficult'. But at the same time you need to sort of set out 'Here's who we are. This is why you've chosen to work with us. You see the value in what we do in our skills and capabilities. But as it happens, the way we have been able to get to that level is through working in this way'. So four days a week means for us we can dedicate our time, do one thing and do it really well for four days a week. But you get a day which is a bit of a reprieve. So you are still in a work environment, but you can think about something that you are passionate about, that you are sort of trucking along with in the background and get away from the client work. As it happens, everyone who's worked with us from a client point of view, it's worked out really well for them because they're kidding themselves if they ever thought they were going to do five days a week purely on our project. They are running their government department or running their business or whatever. So, actually having a day when they can do all that other work that still exists, works out really well. But, sometimes it is a challenge at first to get people to think 'maybe we can think differently about this on this occasion.'
Tom: So I guess that communication at first, initially is really important. So they can understand you and you can understand them as well. So what sort of stuff are people getting up to on that day off? Well, not day off, but the day when people aren't focusing exclusively on clients?
Cam: Well, it's fine to call it a day off. If people want to just use that day to not even do work things. Everyone at Paper is independent, self-organising. They can choose how they want to work, what they want to work on and stuff. It's not strictly you have to be doing a R&D project. I'm trying to think of stuff we've done in the past as some of the stuff we're doing at the moment we can't talk about yet. So yeah some of it has become work related. So people have had a problem on a project. When we do research, we have to take consent from participants and there isn't a slick way of doing that. There isn't a product to do that. So we just designed our own product to do that. Paper now uses it for all consent processes and it's now been adopted by one government department and a few businesses that we work with as well . That's a good example of a mini project that went outside. The other big thing which happened really early on is we developed an event called 'Leg-up social' which is a separate thing to Paper. It is a free to attend digital mentoring event. Originally, it was for charities, small businesses and social enterprises but it expanded beyond that. Anyone who is just really struggling with digital could come along because all we really wanted to do was help. The way it works is people from the digital community volunteer their time to mentor people on digital skills. It all works because people are willing to volunteer and actually at least one of our first, first volunteers was someone from Hive IT thankfully. So, that's a good example I think of how it doesn't have to be a business or a product, it can be anything. You're just not thinking about your client problem and that is somehow just quite healthy for your brain to do that.
Tom: Oh yeah definitely. It can be really refreshing to take your mind of certain things. I know that just on a personal level, if I am really stuck in writing a particular case study or whatever it may be, if I go out for a walk or have a day off and shift my focus to something else. When you go back to that work you were working on previously, you can maybe think of new ideas or new ways of looking at things and that can be really healthy.
Cam: Do you think that could be some of your subconscious doing the work in background Tom?
Tom: Yeah maybe. This is completely off topic but I have been listening to these, this is a bit weird, but the last two nights I was listening to these 'success' whatever that means, manifestation, subconscious kind of videos just before I went to sleep. And what I found really interesting about it is that the last two nights I had these dreams which were really focused on my longer term goals. So in one I had my camera out which I got for my birthday and I was taking photos with my friends and stuff which is a little bit to do with what I want to do. I can't remember last night's anymore but I remember waking up in the middle of the night and being like woah that was weird another dream about 'success'. Success for me what that is for me and yeah that was really weird but I just thought I'd bring that up briefly.
Cam: So is that good that you're bringing up about success things?
Tom: Yeah I think so. As I say I don't really like the word success like what it is today in society. I think a lot of people's idea of success is money and stuff that doesn't align with my values. Not everyone obviously, not most people I know or in this field but yeah it's interesting.
Cam: Yeah you said it before the word about sustainability when we talk about our principles. When we talk about success that's what we talk about. It's almost interchangeable for us. If you can sustain something, if you can make sure that what you take is less than what you give that sort of thing. If we can do that then that's success for us. And when growth comes into it then it's a different question. You're not talking about growth to acquire more, to get more money or more projects or whatever. We talk about well does this make us more sustainable?
Tom: And does that give you the opportunity to give more and take less as well?
Cam: Yeah, yeah.
Tom: That's a really cool definition of success. I think anyone could use that like on an individual level or as a business. If you can be sustainably and consistently providing more than you're taking - that's success.
Cam: Or even neutral yeah. If you are just trying to acquire more then eventually surely, this is all a bit philosophical isn't it? It's just going to feel a bit pointless, like where are you trying to get to with that?
Tom: Yeah that's really cool. I like that definition. Give more than you take sustainably. Be in a position to do that. Anyway, moving on. So, on the individually, members of staff, how on board are they with the principles? How much do you actually talk about these four principles that guide the decisions? And does it help them as well to have that ethical side of things?
Cam: Yeah so we talk about our principles front and center. So every conversation we have if it is with someone who may be joining the team or a partner we might want to work with, we bring them up. Because, I think it's the best way for people to understand us and getting to what's different about us. I feel like people know about them straight away. For the team though as well, I talked about people being self-organising. The principles are really helpful in that regard. If you say to someone, right it's day one. There are loads of things you can do and you have freedom to decide. We trust you to make decisions for yourself. And most people, myself included, have come from structures where you are told what to do by line managers or whatever. In those situations, what the principles do really helpfully is set out a bit of guidance. So, they are not saying this is what you must do. But they are saying you are going to make some choices for yourself and if you are unsure, maybe refer back to these principles. Principles alone don't do that. But, you have to put in place governance and processes that back them up. A good example of that is that first principle 'we value our principles more than money', that is tied to a process called the qualification process which is how we qualify the projects that we are going to choose to work or not work on. It is just a list of questions that you have to answer yes to. For example, 'do we think we will learn something new on this project?' If we answer no to that question, we don't do it. If we answer yes, we do. Do we think they're going to be nice to work with, yes or no? And then one of those is actually and this is always a fun discussion, is it ethically and morally something that we want to work on? So those questions exist, they are available to anyone who works at Paper. So anyone at Paper can look at new questions, a new brief and they can choose if they want to look at it, whether they want to work on it. But they know those principles are there. So yes they are aware of them when they join Paper. But more importantly, those principles aren't just words written on a page but they stretch down to how the business operates day to day.
Tom: Yeah that's really cool I worked for a private company for a while and they had a mission statement that you get in the quarterly newsletter or whatever and you see it scattered around in emails and in marketing stuff but it just wasn't part of any of the processes. What we actually did in that company didn't actually align with that mission statement. So it is interesting to hear how you actually have the principles in place and then the processes to make sure everything you do is in alignment with those principles. How many things do you have to tick on the qualification list? That is quite interesting I haven't heard of that before. I think at Hive IT we are quite similar but it is done less objectively and I am not entirely sure, I haven't worked at Hive long enough to say but it seems like decisions are made just based on our knowledge at the time of okay do we think we will learn from this and is this company ethical. And I am sure we've had many situations where we've turned down work as well if it doesn't align with our values. But its cool to hear that you have these methods in place to make things a bit more structured that sounds quite rare as well. I haven't heard of any companies who have something like that in place so that's really cool.
Cam: I think that comes from the self-organisation part as well. So me Mark and John when we started wrote down some qualification questions and some of them still exist in that list. But, I know that it has gone through at least one iteration, led by Rachel who is a User Researcher at Paper, who saw an opportunity to improve them and chose to do that. It's that thing about, in fact I talked about Faye before talking about the Mama principle. The reason that Faye was thinking about the Mama principle is that she is thinking of ways of better describing our principles and potentially adding new ones as well. So everything is up for grabs when you have a team who you trust and are given the time and space to look at these things. You asked about how many, I don't know, but if you want some examples are 'Do we have the right skills to do the job?' This is a good one 'Have we got a better one to do it then what they've already described?'. Because it is quite easy to look at a brief and say just go yeah we could do that. But how could we actually go and do something better than what they have described?
Tom: How about this one, can we as far as we know, do this better than anyone else? Because what if there is a situation where there is a potential competitor who are more qualified to do a job?
Cam: Yeah that’s kind of in there, but we don’t think of it like that. I talked about before how we specialise and so we depend on partners. We’ve got a question that says do we need help from a freelancer or partner to do this? Do we bring something of value to that partner or freelancer? So it is less about competitors and more about if we’ve got what we think is the best way of doing this, what sort of team of people should we pull together to do it.
Tom: That’s good, I like that and maybe one day Hive IT and paper will work together on something as well.
Cam: Yeah we’ve tried. I’d love to. There are so many fab people at Hive and I know the founders. Where myself, Mark and John met was at the same company that the founders of Hive met as well, funnily enough.
Tom: Ah right.
Cam: For reasons the company doesn’t exist anymore. But actually lot of people went from that agency on to found things. I think it is because they had an amazing leadership team there. You’ve got people like Chris Dymond who is one of the founders of the Sheffield Digital network. You’ve got Saul Cozens who’s currently doing some really interesting work at the University of Sheffield. They were part of the leadership team there. Emma Marshall who is at Three Square, an incredible agency focusing on technology solutions for rail. They all came from this one place it was just a bit of a melting pot of talent and inspiring people.
Tom: Yeah it’s really cool to hear that because I’ve asked a little bit about the background to Hive and is it Technophobia right? Is that the name?
Cam: That’s right yeah. I’ve never really liked the name. But I liked the people.
Tom: Yeah it is an odd name given the work that they did. But yeah, I actually asked my Dad because my Dad has lived in Sheffield for 30 years or whatever and I mentioned to him technophobia and it turned out he had actually done some work with Technophobia 15 years ago so yeah it’s a small world. And you know some of those names you just mentioned I’ve heard of before and we’re hoping to have Chris Dymond on the podcast at some point as well. Anyway, I think that’s it for today. I’ve gone on a few tangents at time with random points, I’ve been bringing up my dreams and Friends so I apologise for that. But yeah you’ve been an awesome guest so thanks for coming on Cam.
Cam: Yeah I really enjoyed it, especially the tangents. Thanks for having me, I really appreciate it. It’s been lovely getting to know you Tom. Thank you very much for giving me the space to chat about principles and what not. It’s not often I get to do that.
Tom: Yeah well thanks for coming on and actually my final questions, before you go, because this is a question I like to ask every guest and I know I’ve not prepped you for this in advance so I apologise in advance. But, what do you think people can do to Make Things Better because this is the Make Things Better podcast and I love asking people this questions because I get a range of answers and they are so personal to different people. So, yeah I’ve kind of gone on a bit there to give you some time to think of an answer. But yeah when you are ready, what can people do to Make Things Better in the world?
Cam: Oh wow, in the world. That is a really big question. I think I spend a lot of time trying to think about how to look for the good in people. So maybe it’s along those lines. Don’t assume they are not good, I was going to use a different word then. Try and find the good in people and take your neighbours parcels as well. I think that’s one way to Make Things Better.
Tom: Love that, thank you. We tend to get quite a lot of bigger answers like your first one – see the good in people. But, then we’ve also had a few mini tips as well like I remember one person’s answer was to go on a walk but record yourself talking before the walk and then listen back so you can hear your thoughts and it’s a cool way of journaling. The other thing on judging, the first thing that sprung to my mind when you said maybe don’t assume or judge people straight away is that I may need people to treat me like that over the next few weeks with this haircut because of certain misconceptions and I don’t want any trouble with anybody. Alright, thanks so much for coming on Cam. Thank you to everyone listening. This has been the Make Things Better podcast. We had Cam on the show, where can people find you or Paper?
Cam: Maybe on Twitter is the best place it’s @papersheffield I’m on Twitter too @camspilman so they are probably the best places.
Tom: Awesome, thanks a lot and I hope everyone has a great rest of their day.
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