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How to Survive the Heat in Silicon Valley, Be Global and Have Fun

By Karla Schlaepfer
bryan zmijewski, education, creativity, dynamische unternehmen, people, silicon valley, zurb, zurb university, zurbians

“17 years in Silicon Valley” as a small progressive product design business, “is a really long time”, admits ZURB head and Chief Instigator Bryan Zmijewski. Company headquarters is located about an hour outside of San Francisco, close enough to catch the buzz but not to be too distracted by the VC discussions over lunch. We drove into Campbell for our interview on a sunny, hot Californian day and became quickly entranced by the stunning ZURB building as well as the amazing working space that the ZURBians inhabit. Their fundamental conviction that anyone and everyone working here creates an world-changing impact in the way they do their job, made it clear – this place is different.

From day 1 on,  Zurbians are to think about solving global problems, not just what’s on the plate in front of them, says Zmijewski. Is this an innovative global hub tucked away in little ole Campbell? Does this figure? How did they do it? One answer is maybe because at ZURB, they’ve had time to file on their system and align their company culture with their goals and define their purpose.

Bryan and his agile team of 25 have re-designed ZURB from a company into a learning organization.

Chief visionary Bryan stopped “working” in 2006 – since then he’s been on a mission “to make tech easy,” using an innovative, evolving business model which also adapts elements of design thinking to “change the way people think about and design connected products and services”. They also help people figure out how to do new things and solve problems using the open-source software and templates that ZURB makes available on the web. Pretty amazing we thought. Put all this this great stuff out there for free!

In the meantime, Bryan and his agile team of 25 have re-designed ZURB from a company into a learning organization. Not top-down, but a pod-like branch structure informs the communication and operational paths. Team members form working relationships to drive projects forward.  The cross-pollination and serendipitous exchange of ideas is important at ZURB which is why ZURB remains a tight-knit, 95% presence company. There is very little home office work. People co-create in real time.

And akin to many other modern open-plan workspaces, here there are no fixed personal desks, people rotate where they sit every 3 to 4 months. There is flexible furniture, standing meeting rooms and more secluded sit-down glass cells. Everyone at Zurb is encouraged  to “dip into” other areas of professional interest in addition to individual expertise. Plus there are interactive benefits that stimulate personal creativity which come from team working, cooking, eating and even exercising together.  A flash of a smaller version of Google comes to mind…

“If you consider us an agency, we get more traffic daily than any other agency worldwide.”

These Zurbians seem to do everything right to optimize and  ensure an inspiring, communicative, “frictionless”,  eco- space. They claim that their culture and shared values, are the glue which allows their unique processes and innovative methods to thrive.  What are some of things that create the conditions to make this fast-paced,  growth mind-set happen? Here a short list:

  • Internalize the ZURB Principles  – Mastery, Purpose and Autonomy (á la Dan Pink)
  • See learning as a discovery journey
  • Implement daily scrum
  • Do standing meetings
  • Use tech that allows co-collaboration
  • Celebrate Friday15

Friday15? What’s that? For the last 5 or 6 years, everyone participates on Friday for 15 minutes of creativity. Leveraging improve techniques, building, game playing, designing and visualizing activities. Usually non-competitive, but not always, challenging, goofy and always fun. The purpose is to help people move outside of their comfort zones, build trust and stimulate creative fluidity.

“ZURB is about people.  We’re human-first”, says ZURBian chief  Zmijewski. “And our software products, like Foundation and Notable templates are wildly and extensively used”. Ink the responsive email framework is the number one framework in the world. ZURB University offers design skills courses and tutorials that help people learn and strengthen their skills. For us, ZURB is an example of a dynamic learning culture, a successful business, where creativity and a growth mind-set are practiced by default. And the Zurbians continue to head in the right direction, Bryan adds,  “we’re not playing to exit (like some Silicon Valley start-ups), we’re creating a sustainable system and are in the business for the long haul”.

Interview took place and was recorded on July 15,2016 by Martin Welz and Karla Schlaepfer

Interested in more ideas and texts on Silicon Valley and related design innovation topics? See: