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Solving problems with creativity at Mako Design + Invent

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What to do when no-one seems to be interested in risking with a startup to finance their product ideas? You make it happen yourself.

When Mako Design + Invent CEO and founder Kevin Mako wanted to turn his journal of invention ideas into real-life product, he hit the hard wall of an industry not willing to help him get his ideas from sketch to production. So he gathered a team, forged ahead, and made it happen with his own persistence. And the story, told by Mako's marketing coordinator Sara Hassan, is among the most compelling ones you can read today.

For this Company Spotlight, we follow the story of a dreamer across two decades, with a company living to solve life problems through design.

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How was your company born and where are you based?

In 1999, our CEO and founder, Kevin Mako, had a journal of invention ideas that he had come up with throughout high school. He searched for years for companies that could help him get his ideas from sketch to production. After years of searching it was quite obvious that there was no reasonable way for a start-up to get their product from Idea to Store Shelves. Product development was impossibly expensive, provided very little product strategy, no knowledge support, and certainly, there were no connections to buyers, wholesalers, patent attorneys, etc. Worst of all, not a single design firm had much interest in working with small product folks.

Kevin decided then and there to dedicate his life to changing that. He set out to create a world-class product design firm entirely tailored to helping start-ups, small businesses, and inventors get from idea to store shelves, all under one roof.

Kevin and his team worked around the clock for years to test, improve, and refine every step of the product development process so that it was tailored to start-ups, small product businesses, and inventors (literally hundreds of initiatives over the years). They built out 4 offices across North America with 30 design professionals to service product idea customers from coast to coast. The offices were modern, open-concept, high-tech, stacked with prototyping equipment and tools, and with a ton of local creative character specific to each region. Mako connected with all kinds of incredible organizations like Make48 TV show, Kickstarter, Indiegogo, SAGE, Core77, Dreamvention, many colleges, universities, start-up incubators and others. 

Mako Design + Invent has now developed over 1000 products, with millions of units of clients’ products in people’s hands all over the world. They have received 21 awards including Inc5000 Fastest Growing Companies in America, Entrepreneur360 Magazine Most Innovative Companies, Indigo Gold, Creativepool Gold for the Best Place to Work award, Lux Magazine Best Design Firm in North America, Growth500 Fastest Growing Companies, and many others. All of this built entirely from scratch and completely organically with no funding, debt, or investors.

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Can you explain your team’s creative process?

The Mako Design creative process is a combination of client interaction, research and the creative application of experience and gained knowledge to solve a given problem in the most creative, attractive and effective way possible. Whether the problem is a cosmetic styling exercise or a deep dive into mechanical or electronic engineering for consumer or commercial applications, we strive to present a solution that exceeds client expectations. Since each of the hundreds of projects we work on annually is slightly different, there is no one-size-fits-all process but rather a basic framework involving learning, imagining, testing and refining which is adapted to suit any given project we are involved in.

How has technology affected the way you work (if at all)?

The most common technological devices we use today are computers with interactive screen technology, 3D CAD software, and rapid prototyping processes, such as 3D printing and scanning, CNC machining, and rapid tooling for soft and rigid molded resin components. In earlier decades, 2D drawings were produced on drawing boards and then transferred manually to hand-built prototypes and mock-ups.

The latest technology has sped up the ability to combine information into a proposed solution, rapidly-produce a version of that solution that may be evaluated, and then iterate upon the solution to refine and find the best possible result for the product. This allows designers and engineers to move relatively seamlessly through a project and maintain continuity in the development process, as opposed to long lead times and stop/start experiences in the past. It makes the whole process more efficient and effective.

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What’s your team’s secret to staying inspired and motivated?

Team interaction is one of the greatest tools for staying inspired. The magic of a team is in the fact that every person is different and brings a different set of not only skills but also experiences and interests to the table. Life hands us experiences every day that shape and form our outlook on different things, but also allow us to solve problems in different ways.

Similarly, people with different interests will tend to approach life from different angles. At Mako Design we have a policy of speaking out when a particular problem has been on our desk for too long. Quite often we have found that the solution to a problem that has been frustrating one designer or engineer for days, is in a simple conversation with the designer or engineer sitting next to them. Accepting and leveraging each other’s differences to learn more about the world in general and our disciplines, in particular, keeps us sharp and motivated as a team.

What’s the work achievement you’re most proud of?

It is easy to leap to the conclusion here that any particular project would be the one to be selected as the greatest achievement. In a 20-plus year career, there have been projects that have turned out to be world-impacting and fantastically successful.

However, for me, the greatest achievement has been to find a career that allowed me to blend creativity with the ability to help people, both corporate and individual, realise their visions for making the world a better place. To enable me to leave my fingerprints on history even in a small way. The companion bike is definitely a good example of one such product. It combines high technology (carbon fiber molding) with practical, environmentally friendly technology (a bicycle) to solve a human-centric problem. Mobility.

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How do you recharge away from the office?

Recharging is a very high priority for me. While a large amount of my time away from work is still spent reading about and exploring the world of design, to stay up to date and in tune, I typically like to spend time not thinking about projects and problems that need solving. But creativity is hard to switch off. So, redirecting it is the more common solution. Drawing and making videos using drone footage are a current favorite. If that fails to calm the mind, a good sci-fi movie or tv series will do.

What advice would you give to other aspiring creatives looking for work?

There is a great and growing need for good creative solutions to everyday problems in the world. Social media and the internet in general make standing out both easy and hard. Easy, because anyone with access can easily promote themselves, but hard because anyone with access can easily promote themselves… So the problem is how to stand out. Again, the internet will give us a thousand crazy ideas of things that people have done to attract attention to themselves...

For some their crazy stunt worked and they got noticed and got the job. While for others, they became the latest viral video and their 15minutes of fame sputtered out when the next cat video hit YouTube. The most important thing that all these folks have in common though, is persistence. We recently had such an experience with a candidate who applied for a position and for one or another reason did not measure up on the skill requirements. The result was that they took the criticism and focussed on bettering themselves and then came back to us and asked for another opportunity.

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