Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?
Dennis: Growing up in an immigrant family, my family was in the restaurant business. Being in the service industry not only taught me to create products that customers enjoyed, but the restaurant allowed me to interact with all walks of life on a daily basis. From executives at corporations to writers, firemen, politicians, engineers, to truck drivers, musicians, athletes, and war veterans. The ability to connect with others regardless of background was one of the most valuable lessons I learned in life. The restaurant was an environment that allowed me to have mentors from many industries, learning and becoming passionate about what made me tick. Interacting with designers, science fiction writers, and engineers shaped my passion for how art and science could come together. My curiosity of how things worked shaped a career path that didn’t exist at the time. Bringing those passions together created the dozens of products I’ve brought to market.
Howard: I come from a humble family of mixed background: my father immigrated from Austria, and my mother from Taiwan. From a young age, I was taught diligence when it came to applying myself at school and the expectation was that I become a doctor or engineer. To procrastinate, I would sketch and doodle all over my workbooks. I actually found my creative outlet through sketching cars, architecture, comics, cartoons, you name it. Realizing my talent for creativity and passion for drawing, I was very lucky to have parents and mentors who helped me hone my skills and point me toward a career path where I could flourish. I knew on my first day of Industrial Design Studio 101, that I had found my path.
Adam: How did your experiences working with some of the world’s leading brands lead you to re-launch Palm?
Dennis: Making great products is about understanding human behavior. It’s less about features and specs and more about understanding the routines of everyday life. The question one should ask is: how to create a product that becomes an essential part of getting a certain job done, better than anything else that currently exists. Sometimes your biggest competitor isn’t the latest or greatest product from a competing company, but an entirely different thing that has become an essential part of your customer’s daily routine. Launching products with some of the world’s leading brands teaches you to focus on these behaviors, it’s what separates the products that become a part of our lives from the ones that make an initial splash but eventually fade away. We started Palm with a vision that technology could weave into our daily lives in a much better way. A way that allowed tech to recede, so we could be connected without being consumed. The original Palm was a beloved brand that stood for innovation, and we’re bringing the spirit of Palm back to rethink how technology fits into our lives, allowing us to value human relationships to be more than relationships through screens. There is a time in your career where you celebrate the amazing feat of launching a product, however as you get industry experience those values change to a focus of bringing products to the world that further a much larger social good.
Howard: As a trained industrial designer, I have always had a fascination with new technology, and how it is packaged into a beautiful, cohesive experience. I remember vividly the first time I held the Palm V in my hand – I was still in design school. The hardware was beautiful and robust, the experience was revolutionary, and I immediately became a fan of the Palm brand. Over the past 20 years, I have had the luxury of designing products in every type of industry you could imagine, from mobile, to sport, and lifestyle. As my career progressed, there were two things that began to stand out – firstly, the power of brand and how it has evolved in the consumer world today. There was once a time when you could tell a consumer how to feel about your brand and product and that would drive sales. Today, the brand is a reflection of how consumers overlay personal meaning upon what you stand for and create. Secondly, looking back at the products I have helped design, it’s clear that some of my work has literally helped the industry drive digital addiction to the point of epidemic. In a world where our mobile phones are so large, they’re almost not considered mobile any longer; and having helped define the wearable category that pushes notifications and distractions to you all hours of the day – we knew that we had to pivot. Our mission for the rebirth of Palm is to help combat screen-time and promote a healthier relationship with tech, thereby allowing you to build healthier relationships with those around you. What better way to launch this mission than to reinvent a beloved brand like Palm, who started it all.
Adam: How did you get Steph Curry on board? What advice do you have on recruiting and leveraging celebrity investors?
Dennis: With any relationship, a genuine and authentic connection is what separates a partnership that is mutually aligned vs. one which is purely transactional. Stephen saw a long-term relationship with Palm because of our vision for technology and how it should fit into our lives. It aligned with his values as a husband, father, athlete, and entrepreneur. Stephen was just as excited to work with Palm as we were to work with him. One thing we learned through that process is that anyone you can imagine to work with is within reach. From Stephen, to the CEO of Verizon, to many other CEOs of our major partners, all of those relationships started with a simple email, outlining a mutually aligned goal, which led to a conversation. If the relationship is authentic, the second, third, and fourth conversations plan themselves.
Howard: No matter if it’s a celebrity, an executive, or an investor – the initial approach is the same. Every relationship in life and in business is based on trust. Building a rapport with another person is always most effective when it’s approached with openness and a humble demeanor. Before even having a single working unit, we have been able to attract captains of industry and A-list celebrities like Stephen by showing true passion for what we are trying to accomplish – beautiful execution on the product, recruiting a robust team of experts, and by being open to exploring ways we can uniquely collaborate with them. The best partnerships are strategic, where each party brings something special to the table and mutually fulfills a need of the others involved. With Stephen in particular, he believed in the product vision from day-one. Stephen and his team spent time at the studio where we regularly conduct brainstorms and workshops, focusing on brand development, accessory development, and marketing strategy. Stephen is not a celebrity endorser of Palm – he has long since been a member of our team and continues to individually make a positive impact on the company and its portfolio.
Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?
Dennis: It’s a leader’s job to carry the torch of the companies vision and lead in ways which show that everyone’s effort is in pursuit of a shared goal. Every decision that is made – big, small, or even the most difficult ones further a cause worth fighting for. This is a part of your daily duty as a leader. This environment creates transparency and empowers employees to make the right decisions, even in the absence of the founders. At a startup, everyone plays such an essential role to the success of the company, often with every employee wearing multiple hats. Stating clear goals and allowing individuals to have ownership to solve problems is key. Your job as a leader often puts you in positions where you are their employee rather than the other way around. Supporting them and unblocking obstacles allows your team to do the best job they can to accomplish their goals.
Howard: Experience, Empathy, and Empowerment. What I have learned over the years is that leadership is a true mix of nature and nurture. Some individuals are just born with the personality and drive to lead, but that alone doesn’t make them an effective leader. As a young design manager years ago, I knew I wanted to lead teams and I thought I would take to it like a fish to water. Was I ever wrong. Though I had determination and quick decision making, I lacked the ability to truly listen my team’s ideas, which caused a lack of trust, motivation, and eventually dissension. Through many years of experience leading teams on projects that span all types of categories, I have been practicing empathy, not just for the end user (as all designers are taught) but also for for my teammates and peers, who I collaborate with. Everyone brings something unique to the table, and if you are empathetic to each member’s ideas and talents, you will not only drive better output, but you will empower them to create beyond your wildest expectations.
Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?
Dennis: Love what you are doing, or it will break you. Any sane individual should avoid starting a company or being an entrepreneur unless the cause is worth fighting for at a deep personal level. You will endure some of the most difficult hardship you have ever faced, you will need to overcome things that even decades of experience hasn’t prepared you for, and it’s guaranteed that things never go as planned. Be prepared to be opportunistic. Your end goal my not change, but the path to your goal requires you to shift strategy and be dynamic on a constant basis. Choose your partners and investors like you choose friends. Our most strategic relationships involve people and companies we enjoy working with. Although other immediate gains may say otherwise, always follow your intuition.
Howard: Building Palm as a new mobile company, reinventing the brand, and creating the product and experience has been far more enlightening than I could have ever imagined. It may be cliche to say that success is the journey, not the destination – but in hindsight, I can honestly say it is true. The lessons learned throughout this journey have changed my perspective on design, business, and even objectives in my personal life. If you have dreams of starting a company, just know that you will face the highest euphoric peaks and the deepest emotional troughs in your career – some back-to-back. Cool-headed perseverance, belief in yourself, and a trusted partner can keep you grounded through the most trying of times – and just remember to always take a moment to celebrate the smallest of wins – it’s important for you, as well as your team’s motivation and mental well-being.
Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?
Dennis: Listen – don’t just wait to speak. All relationships in business are based on trust and an authentic understanding of each other. You will build a genuine bond with others when they feel they are heard, you reciprocate, and you become an advocate for each other’s positions and causes.
Howard: Travel as much as possible. It’s true that inspiration can come from anywhere, but habitual daily activities can become a grind – commuting to work, sitting in meetings, doing the same thing day in and day out. Many of the most inspired creatives in the world travel with abundance, learning from their new surroundings and the new people they meet – like a sponge. The more perspective you have, the better leader you can be, the more inspired creative you can become. Experiences are the stuff of life.
Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?
Dennis: Help others regardless of how it benefits you. Whether its an inbound mail from an aspiring student in your industry, to a colleague looking for an introduction, or just someone in the mail room that needs a helping hand. You will be surprised to see how a genuine act of kindness comes back to surprise you someday.
Howard: Wherever and whenever possible, get involved in education. As someone who may have lived through the ups and downs of life and business, helping guide the next generation of creators and leaders is the best reward one can receive from a life of experience. I have personally given talks at my alma mater and other design schools, and spent time mentoring a number of young designers on their thesis projects. I have also been lucky enough to join the advisory board of a new design school, helping them create a new curriculums to modernize their approach to design education.
Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?
Dennis: I’ve always had a fascination for how things worked, even as a small child. Whether it was disassembling computers and rebuilding them – to later in life tinkering with building engines for classic cars, I find a lot of joy in making things that brings a smile to others. Whether it’s working on the next great product or growing grapes to make wine for family and friends, my natural curiosity of how things worked led to a hobby of drawing, sketching, and designing for how things could be better. I was always fascinated by stories of science fiction and the future yet to come, and ultimately I realized that I had the ability to turn some of that fiction into reality. It was an understanding that the people who created the products that shaped our lives were no different than you or me and the best way to create that future was to invent it yourself.
Howard: All of the hobbies I have had since I was young have revolved around making something better – improving on what already exists, because “good enough” has never been part of my vocabulary. Starting from when I was a teenager until today, I have always been interested in anything that went fast. Starting with skateboards, then bikes, and now too sports cars – I either built or heavily modified all of them to enhance their performance, and altered their aesthetic to make them more unique. That love for making something better has now translated into interior design and renovation. One day, I aspire to design and build my own home. I have always believed that there is a way to improve upon anything in life, as long as you have enough desire and determination to do so.