John Zapolski: “Business travel is overrated”

Good venture capitalists are interested in who the founders are, not just in making investments that make them rich. While they do want to make money, they’re interested in entrepreneurs who are working on problems that interest them, as well as being connected to those people and learning from them. As a part of my series […]

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Good venture capitalists are interested in who the founders are, not just in making investments that make them rich. While they do want to make money, they’re interested in entrepreneurs who are working on problems that interest them, as well as being connected to those people and learning from them.

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing John Zapolski.

John Zapolski is a designer, entrepreneur and founder and CEO of Alive Ventures, a startup studio dedicated to building products and brands for adults in later life.

Before Alive Ventures, John served on the graduate faculty at the School of Visual Arts where he taught strategic innovation in interaction design. He was the visionary co-founder of Fonderie 47, a fine jewelry and timepiece company developed to remove and destroy assault weapons from conflict zones, upcycling them into meaningful, elegant accessories — and the creator of STEAM Carnival, a live entertainment brand that inspired kids to invent science, technology, engineering, art, and math. In another lifetime, John was a business strategy consultant to brands including The New York Times Company, Nokia, and AARP among others, and served in senior positions in user experience at Yahoo! and Wells Fargo.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you please tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’m the founder of Alive Ventures, a startup studio that creates businesses for older adults that can help them live, work and love more joyfully. I got to this path by being interested in designing things that can help improve people’s lives.

I’ve only worked on behalf of older people for a couple of years, but I’ve always been interested in how to combine thinking from the philanthropic world with thinking from the startup world, along with creativity and culture, to create new resources and approaches to solving problems.

When The SCAN Foundation asked me to come up with a strategy to improve the day to day experience of older adults, I decided to spend a year traveling around the country meeting with people to learn more about that. When I was sitting with groups of older adults, just being curious about the challenges that they have in their lives and how they deal with them, most of what they were interested in was really ordinary experiences of the everyday. The older people I met were interested in a conversation they might have with their daughter, or the time they got to spend with their three best friends in the afternoon, or the experience they had cooking in their own kitchen, and why they loved that.

That spoke to an early experience of mine. As a child, my mother would always answer for me when people asked what I wanted to be when I grew up — an artist. And I had liked that idea. But what bothered me was that art museums seemed removed from my everyday experience. At the time, it seemed like a place that kids were forced to go to on school field trips, or where rich old people would wander around to pass the time.

Then I discovered design, and found out that what designers do is make everyday things, like a toaster that might be used every morning and might be in millions of homes. I loved the idea that making a really great, beautiful everyday ordinary object, like a toaster, could give each person who uses it a little bit of joy.

It feels like I’ve come full circle, back to the joy of ordinary everyday experiences.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

There are two things that have always guided me. One is to let the work speak for itself. The second is to be kind.

With respect to the work, I think that in seeking to make beautiful things, to make great products and work that moves people, it’s really easy to get caught up in trying to explain it. But in the end, it’s how people bring themselves to it, and their own emotional reaction to the work that you’re doing, that determines whether it has any impact or not. So we should seek to put the energy and attention and quality into the product of the work. I’ve always found that my favorite films are like that — directors who don’t talk about their work too much. It’s the same thing with designed objects and experiences, and with anything that’s great, really.

Kindness is too frequently overlooked. It’s something that’s been with me since I was a kid. No matter what kind of success you’re having, or what accolades you might get, or what achievements you might make, what really matters is whether you are kind to people.

Ok thank you for that. Let’s now move to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

I think it’s a simple idea, which is that getting older is something to look forward to.

How do you think this will change the world?

If we collectively saw our lives as a progression towards becoming more and more of who we are, and building the relationships, attitudes and perspectives that let us live in an engaged way, then we would embrace the opportunity to keep doing that over a long period of time. We’d look forward to getting better and better and more involved in our own life and its purpose.

We resist the idea of aging so much in popular culture, which for a long time has put pressure on us to go fast and to be really stressed about whether we’re gaining on a timeline. We feel that if we don’t achieve certain things by a certain age, then we won’t have any opportunity to reach long term happiness.

That really shapes the way that we think about things. It shapes how we think about relationships with other people, how we think about the importance of work, and the importance of the effects of our work on our own happiness, our own discernment and our own contentment.

If we give ourselves time, and we trust ourselves that in that time we will continue to understand ourselves better, we’ll continue to get closer to understanding what’s important to us, we will continue to get better at allowing what’s important to us to come into our lives. I think it would make us a lot happier.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

I suppose that looking forward to later life could be interpreted to mean not being fully present in your life right now. I don’t mean to advocate that people just sit tight and expect that life will be great years from now. The idea is actually to do your best to come alive right now and let yourself unfold over time.

People have been taught that retirement is what you save up for and that’s when you get to do all the things you wish you could do now, but you can’t because work gets in the way.….that attitude leads to missing opportunities to be fully engaged in the experiences that we’re having right now.

It also tends to put a lot of stress on that particular time. You get there and you find that you don’t really know how to do it. You don’t have a relationship with yourself to know: What are my reasons? What do I care about? Who are the people I want to spend time with? How do I nurture those relationships?

We should not put off being alive as a destination, but as a journey that keeps getting better the more consistent we are in staying committed to it.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

I got to the idea of looking forward to later life through the process of building a venture studio.

The SCAN Foundation provided the initial financial backing for Alive Ventures and has been trying to improve the lives of older adults for more than a decade, mostly through policy. And most of that policy work is related to healthcare, which is only one part of older people’s day to day experience. What really impacts older adults on a daily basis are the products and services available to them. The SCAN Foundation asked me what I thought about that idea, and whether the products and services could be improved.

I then asked, what do older adults want for themselves? I realized that designers and entrepreneurs who aren’t yet in “later life” may have ideas of what they want and need, but don’t really know.

I decided to be in conversation with older people about their day to day experience…which connected me back to that idea that I first had when I was about ten, when I decided I wanted to be a designer to make things that people would enjoy everyday, like a toaster.

When I looked at the world of products and services intended for older adults, I just thought they weren’t very good. They tended to portray older adults as sick, frail and alone, rather than as fully three-dimensional human beings. I couldn’t think of a better way to encourage the development of products and experiences that celebrate later life, than to lean in and start creating them myself.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

One thing that would help is for people to spend time with older people. People should ask what life’s like, what’s different?

I think people would be surprised, because we have a lot of negative caricatures about what older people are like ….sometimes they’re true, but there’s a lot to be envious about, too. For example, how they’ve cut out the bullshit, have realized who’s important in their life and how they know what actually makes them happy.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. People in later life want many of the same things we all want. They aren’t just a collection of problems to solve. I could have gotten started creating those things sooner if I already knew this one.
  2. Business is about people and bringing people together to create things we wish existed. It’s not just about making money or building empires. I was closed off to the idea of working in business as an avenue to create something great until I figured this out.
  3. Good venture capitalists are interested in who the founders are, not just in making investments that make them rich. While they do want to make money, they’re interested in entrepreneurs who are working on problems that interest them, as well as being connected to those people and learning from them.
  4. Business travel is overrated. I thought that a career that sent me to different places would be a way to discover the world. What it’s really like is being exhausted at the end of the day, sitting in a room that looks just like a room in another part of the world.
  5. We don’t need to choose between helping people and making great, successful companies. I was led to believe there is a tradeoff between enriching the lives of others, through service work, and enriching my own life. That’s totally false.

There’s an opportunity to make things at scale and create value. Offering that to others means we can be financially successful and proud of our own work.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

Keep learning. It might sound trite, but keep finding ways to have new ideas, to learn about what it takes to make an idea work, and stay committed to that.

Managing ourselves and our own health and relationships are vital to making businesses work. We tend to celebrate “hustle culture,” but more often than not that’s a real liability. It leads to burnout and breakdown. Instead, we should pay attention to physical and mental wellbeing. Companies run on people, and people run on sleep, nourishment, and exercise.

Pay attention to the people you are working on behalf of and with. We can get stuck in our own perspectives and to-do lists, and if we ask questions of our customers it reminds us what’s really important to do today.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S. whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

Greg Isenberg. He’s a successful serial entrepreneur who understands better than anyone how community works through digital products.

During the pandemic, we are missing social activities that bring us together. Greg built his career on finding ways to create community and connection via the internet. And he understands how to connect people to who they would like to know, rather than simply to who they already know.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I’m on Twitter @JZapolski and @Alive_Ventures and Instagram @aliveventures.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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