Michelle Gilmore: How frustration with traditional design practice lead to a successful business

Michelle Gilmore founded Neo in 2010 after years of frustration and disappointment with traditional design disciplines and practice. As the Design Director of Neo, she leads a team of world class designers through complex business and organisation problems toward proven interventions.

Dynamic Business had a chat with Gilmore about her behavioural design agency, new exciting projects and her advice to other entrepreneurs.

What is Neo?

Neo is a behavioural design agency that helps leaders to make better, evidence-based decisions. We design new products, services and systems to move organisations, industries and communities to their desired future states. We exist to apply our skills to problems big and small, those problems are focused on generating some kind of positive impact.

Tell us about your journey creating Neo?

I started Neo in 2010. I had just turned 25 and couldn’t have been more disappointed in most leaders I’d worked for in my short career as an Industrial Designer. I saw the constant conflict and contradiction between what people said and what they did and didn’t see why things needed to be binary.

Why couldn’t we make money and have a positive impact on the world at the same time? There seemed to be two camps and I didn’t want to choose, and so I decided to make my own. I made a promise to always honour the values that Neo was built upon and do business with integrity. I’ve kept that promise and almost nine years on I’m very proud of everything Neo has achieved and more importantly what we have walked away from.

How does Neo challenge stereotypes?

At the core of our practise is using evidence to make decisions. Too often, decision makers are making calls that affect the people they are meant to serve and the world around them based on narrow views and unvalidated assumptions. This is dangerous and can lead to unintended consequences. So, we push the decision makers we work with to seek evidence from multiple sources and to intentionally consider who they are privileging in their decisions, and thus, who they are therefore disadvantaging.

Have you always been interested in entrepreneurship?

I think I’ve always been intrigued by difference and taking healthy risks. Perhaps that’s something that makes an entrepreneur, I’m not sure. I think that a frustration in status quo is part of it as well; feeling like we could be better, things could change and wanting to get that done.

Why is it important not to put people into labels such as ‘millennials’?

This is an example of a stereotypical label being applied to a ‘group’ of humans and this example suggests that year of birth is the primary driver of behaviour. Year of birth may contribute, but that depends on the context.

The danger in this comes from putting people in static buckets and making assumptions about them based on something like year of birth. We often hear clients talking about technology and millennials as an example – however in some contexts people born in 1990 and 1960 will have the same behaviour. Stereotyping your audience just makes you stupid. It’s overly simple and humans aren’t.

What are the three qualities you think are important for entrepreneurs to have?

My answer to this question changes depending on where I and Neo are at, but right now:

  • Resilience – to enable strength and maturity through inevitable changes and challenges
  • Humility – to be able to take a moment and apply measure and compassion to a situation, self confidence is key, but without humility it won’t sustain you
  • Objectivity – an ability to think outside of one’s personal belief system to allow alternative views and evidence into the decision making process

What are your top 3 tips for those who want to create their own business?

  • There’s no secret. It’s about the constant application of hard work, everyday.
  • Know your values and stick to them.
  • Understand how and why your brain works the way it does and hire people to counterbalance your flaws.

How did you initially get the funding for Neo?

I didn’t, I landed one first (small) project and purchased a few desks and laptops. From there we went from working in my house to a studio and grew from there. I behaved like we were a mature business before we were; I believed it and so others did too. I ensured that I kept every promise I made and delivered results early, to build credibility.

What was the turning point in turning the idea into a fully-fledged business?

I’d worked for many different organisations, both agency and client side and I couldn’t work for disappointing leaders anymore. I had just come from yet another alarming experience of seeing how leadership often works from the inside and decided that I could no longer endorse doing business that way. There really was no other option than to start my own business, I couldn’t keep judging when I wasn’t doing it myself.

Future plans?

Following the success of Neo, we launched Train, a capability building company, that’s about a year old and is going really well.

In the longer term I am interested in how we can insert behavioural design into adjacent sectors and industries, like public policy, for example. I taught a class to Masters students in New York recently, they were learning how to make public policy and I taught them how to test that, using methods created over the years at Neo.

Current news?

We’re working on incredible projects with partners whose value align with ours. Our collaboration with The Australian National University (ANU), for example, sees us applying behavioural design to both internal and external strategy to deliver better education across the country and beyond.

The Red Cross Blood service is using our iterative experimentation technique to improve the donor experience.

Rabobank are working to support and evolve Australia’s agricultural industry and we’re working together to better understand how this might look and how truly partnering with farmers might work.

Then there’s City of Sydney – we can’t quite talk about that one yet, but it’s a fascinating project!

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