Tell me a little bit about yourself, who you are, and where you are from.
I was born and grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Both of my parents were academics – my dad a writer and English professor; my mom a book editor. I’m an only child, so growing up I spent a fair amount of time entertaining myself – I used to take apart my electronic toys and spent time with an old Osborne computer and then a Mac 512. Since I was young, I’ve loved technology, American culture and film and studied all of these subjects during college at Vassar. I’ve lived in Brooklyn for the past 20 years and now reside with my wife Stacie and two young sons, Isaac and Oliver.
Michael, you have an interesting story about Jane’s Carousel, pictured above. What is your story?
Jane’s Carousel, now located in Dumbo a block from Big Spaceship’s office, has been under construction since I can remember. When it was finally installed on the waterfront, I got a call from my father letting me know that the carousel was actually from Youngstown, Ohio, and that he rode it when he was a child. My dad is 80 years old. It’s remarkable that the carousel has come full circle in my family – I took my kids to ride it over the summer.
How do you describe yourself as a creative and the kind of work you do at Big Spaceship?
I don’t describe myself as a creative. I don’t describe anyone as a creative. I bring together brands and an insanely talented and multidisciplinary group of people at Big Spaceship – to help make things better for people and consumers.
What was your vision for founding Big Spaceship?
To be honest, I’m not completely sure why it seemed like a good idea to start Big Spaceship when I did. It was a really interesting time when people were handed out massive investments for web ideas written on the backs of napkins. It was truly a gold rush, and everyone was looking to go public. Business had begun its shift to the web, and even as valuations crashed and startups flamed out, that ball kept rolling.
We started in the extra bedroom in Dan’s apartment, my business partner at the time. Later, when we moved into our first office, we chose DUMBO – the economy was keeping us honest. We were also young and naïve, believing that if we just made great work, everything would work out ok. And luckily for us, we were right. Well, mostly.
What sets you apart from other agencies?
We’re not in the business of producing design or code or strategy. We’re in the business of wielding those skills together to solve problems and make companies more successful. We’ve figured out a different layout than other agencies – with interdisciplinary teams seated together. It’s a wildly efficient model. We’ve also eliminated any title with the world “creative” in it. At Big Spaceship, there are no creative directors, no creative strategists and no creative technologists. My oft-repeated line is that creativity is an obligation, not a vocation. I do believe that you lose so many minds, so many perspectives, if you put your creative output in the hands of just those with creativity in their job title. We don’t hire assholes, no matter how talented. When we ask our employees what they value most about Big Spaceship, 99% of the time the answer is “the people and the culture.” That’s something that we put a lot of time towards feeding and nurturing. We have principles that serve as a framework for everything we do:
Produce amazing work: There is a high bar, aim above.
Collaborate inside and out: We can’t produce any of our work alone, clients included.
Take care of each other: The most powerful reason people don’t participate is fear of social rejection, so we take care of each other as people not just as a set of skills.
Speak up: Good ideas come from everywhere; no silent disagreement.
How did you get to where you are today? What has been your career path?
My first agency job was an unpaid internship at a strange but cool little web design company in Boston called Stumpworld. I really wanted to learn how to “make the web” as I thought of it in those days, so I swallowed my pride and moved back in with my mom to take the internship. I learned enough about making websites there to apply for my first job in New York – at a web design agency called Thoughtbubble. It was an amazing time, and Thoughtbubble presented a unique opportunity because their niche was cable television, giving us the earliest access to broadband connections when they were first emerging. How little we knew and how many things we tried! At that time the web was a wild place – and naïve – but great fun. We all just had to figure it out because it was all new.
And then I started Big Spaceship. I had the excitement about the possibilities in a new, digital world coupled with the opportunities of a new company. It was a good, yet scary, time in my life.
Have you had any mentors who helped give you direction or helped steer you along on your professional path?
A few years back, I mentioned in the NYT how I really haven’t had a lot of mentors and how I’ve had to figure things out for myself. I’ve learned a lot from seeing what didn’t work: a “dis-mentor.” However, a lot of credit goes to my dad who has given me some important opportunities. Within the industry, my friend Brian Collins once replied to an email I sent him with a new piece of work we had done “Michael: you made something out of nothing, and that is always a small miracle.” I still smile about that today – it was a great moment and I quote him all the time.
What are you currently working on?
We now manage 2 of the 3 biggest brands on social platforms. In total, we reach upwards of 208 million fans across different platforms – all told, that’s as high as the population of the fifth largest country in the world, more than Brazil. We’re working on a lot of cool projects for different brands across so many verticals – Silicon Valley, Hollywood, fashion, automotive, food and CPG, culture and fine arts, and even personal finance.
Where and when are you most creative? When do the best ideas come to you?
In my 30s. But honestly, it’s when I’m working with a group of people who all see the world somewhat differently. The best ideas come to me whenever, and wherever. Of course I like it when the world is quiet, but I don’t experience it often, so I’ve got to make due with what I’ve got. Sometimes I enjoy quiet moments before the city is awake.
How do you get new clients and keep old clients?
The best way to get new clients and to keep old clients is to focus on doing great work. A client should feel like the experience of working with you and creating with you is as good as it can possibly be. Make sure you’re doing as well as you possibly can. Over the years, we’ve really relied on inbound inquiries and it’s put the right kind of pressure on us to do great work. Because great work is the only thing that keeps the phone ringing. If you do good work, good work will come.
Where do you find inspiration?
I’ve always inhaled everything I see. I listen, I read. I skim the world. I try to take in every little piece I can because you never know what might be valuable when connected with something else. It’s about having as many dots to connect as you can get. Trying to collect and connect the dots. And, as trite as it may sound, my sons inspire me the most. Their minds are completely open – they don’t think according to rules. They can pretend in one minute and in the next describe how they figured out a complex thing about the world.
Do you have any routines or rituals? Something that gets the creative juices flowing?
I don’t, I probably should. I would never say I’m busier than anyone else. But, my time is extremely fragmented and I have lots of different things to do on any given day. I don’t have the luxury of a fixed routine. And when I do have that time, it’s usually the routine of getting my kids where they need to go and do what they need to. Its forced me to get good at functioning – and being creative – on the fly in real time.
What advice do you have for someone interested in working at your agency?
Make yourself indispensable to your team. The most important thing for me is if people on your team say we can’t live without this person. Be scrappy, be funny, be kind, and be tenacious.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received in general, or about how to be more creative?
Shut the fuck up, Mike.
Check out http://www.bigspaceship.com to learn more.