Don Bora is the Co-Founder of Eight Bit Studios. Don Bora is a thought leader, influencer, and risk taker, and provides the vision and energy that has inspired the creation of Eight Bit Studios. Don Bora joins other leading CEOs and Founders taking part in our Leader Roundtable Interview Series. The DotCom Magazine editorial team has awarded Eight Bit Studios as an Impact Company of 2019, and we are delighted to have Don join us for our Leader Round Table Interview. The Eight Bit Studios story is very interesting, and we are very excited to not only interview Don about his very successful business and entrepreneurial spirit, but also put Don through our popular speed round as well.
Don, thank so much for taking the time out of your busy day for this interview, and answering some questions about leadership, your vision, and your Eight Bit Studios.
1. Can you describe what the “elevator pitch” for Eight Bit Studios is?
Hi, we’re Eight Bit Studios, we seek to delight. Through award winning UX and Design, we mix in quality-driven custom mobile and web development to deliver peak moments of user engagement.
2. Many of our readers are just starting to build a company. What advice can you give CEO’s just starting out regarding keeping a company moving forward, and please tell us the key to your company’s success?
I’ll begin with what I think make Eight Bit Studios successful. We’ve taken a page out of Ed Catmull’s book, Creativity Inc. and iterate on our company’s core. Once a year, we shut the company down and devote a day to assess what we could be doing better. We focus on three core areas: Process, Communication, and Culture. Our most successful format for this activity is running it like a hackathon. Everyone is encouraged to pitch ideas and then we form teams around the ideas. The teams present their final “product” or what they want to execute and we work on those throughout the year. It’s how we got our: Parental Leave Policy, 401k (and in 2019 matching), Health Benefits, special blend of Agile and specific delivery process and so much more. It’s one of the best and most productive ways we have found to engage our people and ensure everyone has a voice. People anticipate the arrival of this event and see it as a chance to make our lives better. We don’t always knock it out of the park but we learn from every experience and apply that to the next time. My advice would be: let culture happen. Culture has to evolve as a groundswell. Anything from the top will feel forced, unnatural, and will likely meet with resistance.
3. For other entrepreneurs seeking to build a business as successful as Eight Bit Studios, what advice can you give them when times get a little challenging?
Don’t do it alone, surround yourself with people you respect and can learn from. On our leadership team which includes the founders and managing partners, my career is 17 years older than our youngest managing partner yet I find I learn so much from her, she is a model of fortitude and professional acumen and I draw on her skills constantly. Having a solid leadership team that you can depend on is, in my
opinion, immeasurable. I know I can reach out to anyone on my team at anytime to confide in, lean on, or take out to lunch or coffee as a sounding board. When we started Eight Bit, we got a great piece of advice from someone who ran the company where we all met. He said “Find your replacement.” It’s solid direction. I have been lucky enough to have done that twice now. Having someone directly under me who I can trust to make decisions that I would agree with is extremely freeing. I find I can focus on bigger picture strategy and less about how the team is operating.
4. How important is the commitment to client satisfaction at Eight Bit Studios, and how do you make sure your customers will become raving fans of your company?
We treat every client as a partner. We’re not going to work with someone who just wants an “outsourcing firm,” that’s not our style. I like to think of a client relation ship as a cross-country road-trip. We’re gonna be stuck in the car together for hours and days. Things are going to go wrong. You’re not going to like my choice of music. I’m going to have to use the bathroom after we’ve just gotten underway. You’re going to get mustard on my seats. We can always count on some challenges and bumps in the road. The question is, how are you going to react when things go sideways. We view our partnerships as a collaborative team trying to do something great and we strive to do our best work for all of our clients. Sometime we take on a client who really has no interest in collaborating and they just want us to “do the work.” That doesn’t work out for us because in the end, it doesn’t work out for the client. We look for clients who love what they do, who are passionate about their business. That gives us something our team can get excited about. We also try and celebrate our clients. We had one client who came to us with a government grant research product to see if positive messages had any effect on weight-loss. At one point, one of the icons used in the mobile app that we were building featured a sloth to denote low activity. Our client didn’t think that would resonate with the users and came off a little punitive so we nixed it pretty early on. However, the sloth icon was so adorable that he kind of became the unofficial product mascot(https://www.facebook.com/eightbitstudios/photos/a.10155945928040754/10156003182920754/?type=3&theater). At the launch of a client product we contacted Flying Fox Conservation Fund (http://flyingfoxconservationfund.com) and had Steve the Sloth, a rescue sloth, visit the studio along with our client. (https://www.facebook.com/eightbitstudios/videos/10154900026355754/).
It’s fair to say that strong client relationships are one of the most important and core elements at Eight Bit. We encourage everyone to speak positively about our clients, to identify with them an empathize with their struggles. We want our people to understand our clients’ business as if were our business because, at the end of the day, it is our business.
5. What is the one overriding belief that Eight Bit Studios has about what it is doing?
I like to say that Eight Bit Studios is annoyingly collaborative. I say this tongue-and-cheek with a dash of serious. Collaboration can be noisy and people who work hard need to blow off steam; something we encourage through table-tennis, bubble hockey, Eight Bit field days, coffee walks, etc. We as co-founders of Eight Bit Studios are domain experts and we view that as our secret-sauce or in Lean Canvas terms, our unfair advantage. John Ostler is a User Experience Designer and a web front end developer. Steve Polacek is an outstanding Visual Designer with seemingly boundless creativity, and I have been coding professionally since 1990. We believe that unrestricted and respectful collaborating brings out the best in each of the teams. Software developers have input in our User Experience and Design Sprints (UX/D Sprints) to keep the product in scope but also to push the boundaries when we have capabilities that will unshackle the UX/D team and add that little something extra to delight the users. Those moments happen all of the time at Eight Bit and they are some of my proudest and fondest memories. There is nothing more that I love than seeing teams do their best work together, making each other better along the way.
6. In today’s fast changing business environment, what do you do to keep up with the changes? What do you read to stay abreast of things?
Every morning I spend about 20 minutes reading the Harvard Business Review or MIT’s Technology Review. I read HBR to keep me abreast of the latest business trends. HBR covers an extremely wide range of topics from giving individual feedback to the impact of rolling out system wide, comprehensive change management systems in fortune 100 companies. I just finished The Feedback Fallacy in the March-April 2019 edition (https://hbr.org/2019/03/the-feedback-fallacy) and it blew my mind! On the technology side, I find MIT’s Technology Review’s coverage to be impressively comprehensive as well. Their most recent edition focused on China and covered everything from scholarly patents to the massive entrepreneurial explosion in Shenzhen, which I find personally fascinating. I also hit up the latest and greatest of the online tech scene including Y Combinator and SlashDot to see who is doing what with which technology. Online reading is how I keep up with things such as functional programming, computer languages that are gaining an industry foothold such as Rust and Scala. I also actively code. Nothing keeps those professional chops up like getting in the weeds for a passion project. My current side project explores low-latency data transmission. I explored Rust, server side Swift, C++, and Java for the implementation. It’s so much fun getting my hands dirty! I love working on infrastructure projects much more than consumer “wow”; I have no idea why.
Additionally, I network like crazy. I will take at least 5 coffees a month to keep pace with what’s happening in Chicago. I have a small group of tech/CTO type folks with whom I meet regularly. I find it tremendously helpful to hear the struggles that they are going through if only to remind me that none of this is easy.
7. What is your “Why”? Why do you get up in the morning, and how do you keep yourself at peak performance to lead Eight Bit Studios?
Peak performance today means something different to me today than it did 10 years ago. Back then, it was all about how much code I wrote, how fast the team could deliver. Today, peak performance is centered around people. Mentoring team members and providing professional and actionable feedback is something my team relies on from me. Keeping myself in the headspace where one minute an HR or staffing challenge hits and ten minutes later helping navigate the mercurial waters of the Apple App Store with regard to proprietary blue-tooth hardware integration is probably my greatest challenge. Keeping myself at “peak performance” today means being there for just about everyone in the company, all the time. Week to week the challenges I face are surprisingly varying. Understanding the level of impact I can have on a person, a team, or a client is what gets me excited about coming into the office. Our amazing crew is so talented and seeing what creative direction they take our product work is exhilarating. That is why I get out of bed in the morning. That is my Why.
8. Can you recommend a book that has had an influence in your career? How did it influence you?
I have already referenced Ed Catmull’s Creativity Inc. The only other book to have a major impact on my was one that I read quite recently: Give and Take by Adam Grant. In the book, Dr. Grant connected the dots for me between Servant Leadership and the Giver personality. This hit me like a bolt of lightening and I think I set the book down and just let the realization wash over me. All of my life I’ve been what Adam Grant describes as a Giver. I give of my time, I help out when I can, I have a very hard time not taking on a task or saying no. I get particular joy out of helping people and I don’t look for compensation or quid-pro-quo. During my life, I had been told that affable behavior was naive at best, and a sign of weakness at worst. I have never been able to change who I fundamentally am and yet I saw that characteristic as a professional liability. Give and Take showed me that I don’t have to change and if anything, I can double down because my success has not been in spite of my Giver mentality. Being a Giver has nurtured my success, such as it is, and has allowed me to become a servant leader, a consensus builder. After some intense introspection and reflection, I realized that my teams always seem to be happy and joyful while working through the hard problems. Give and Take really let me enjoy being who I am and freed me from a lot of self-doubt that I had grown up with.
9. In one sentence, can you tell us what the most important thing about being a leader is?
You work for your people as much as they work for you, don’t ever forget that.
10. In one sentence, can you give some advice to fellow entrepreneurs wishing to build a company as exciting as Eight Bit Studios?
Find people to work with who love what they do; no matter what you are building, if they love what they do, they will produce!
(I cheated with the semi-colon, for sure)
Don, we would like to have some fun and do our famous “First Reaction” round with you! We will ask you ten more questions that we want you to answer in just one to three words only.
Here you go!
1. In three words or less, What makes a successful CEO?
Listen more, talk less
2. Describe Eight Bit Studios in one word?
3. Describe Eight Bit Studios customers in one word?
4. What one attribute do you look for when hiring an employee for Eight Bit Studios?
5. What is the one word you want your customers to say about Eight Bit Studios?
6. In three words or less, describe your Eight Bit Studios?
7. In three words or less, describe what it takes to be successful?
8. In three words or less, describe your first year in business at Eight Bit Studios?
9. In three words or less, describe how running a successful company has changed you?
10. What is the one word that you believe has the most power in the English Language?
Don Bora, thank you so much for sitting down with us at our DotCom Magazine Impact Player Round Table. We very much appreciate the time you spent helping others to learn more about your company and what it takes to be a leader. We we wish you, your family, and of course Eight Bit Studios, nothing but the best. Thanks again!
The Don Bora Roundtable Interview brought to you by DotCom Magazine.