John Cleere: ‘The iceberg under any innovation is execution’

3 Sep 2019

John Cleere. Image: Red Lemonade Creative

John Cleere of Red Lemonade Creative discusses the ‘echo chamber’ of design, the best way of getting through a to-do list, and life in the sunny south-east.

John Cleere is a digital product strategist and owner of Red Lemonade Creative, a design studio that was set up in Kilkenny in 2003.

He is the founder of Tech Thursday Kilkenny, a community of enterprise-led events that encourage new industry and employment opportunities. He is also an advocate for working and living in Ireland South East.

‘Taking advice from people with no “skin in the game” has always been a big mistake. Only seek advice or work with people who have something to lose, just like you’

Describe your role and what you do.

My primary role is to build relationships with companies and organisations to show them how design can add real, quantifiable value to their digital product or service. The goal is to deliver an offering that allows them to innovate faster and more efficiently.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

I try not to make long lists of priorities as they look like guilt trips. High-impact quick wins get done first, followed by creating tasks and formulating projects from the rest depending on how long they will take. The best way to prioritise and organise a whole bunch of stuff you are unsure of is to just bin them!

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

The design sector tends to live in its own echo chamber – designers talking to designers about design. We spend more time interacting with other industries and understanding their problems and pain points, which makes us better designers.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

While a lot of design agencies focus on implementation (design and build), the reality is that implementation work is rapidly becoming a commodity. We find that our product design strategy service offers value to the client in the discovery and recommendation phases (the two steps before implementation).

It’s the most vital part of any new digital product or feature, and we take the client team through a design sprint process of starting with an idea and producing a testable product prototype with user feedback within one week. This design process saves a massive amount of our clients resources and cost, but most importantly gives them a clear direction on where to go next with the product. We have had a lot of success in this area and are currently working on fintech products.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

I’m from and back living in Kilkenny. From a very young age, I used to visit with awe the KDW (Kilkenny Design Workshops, 1963-1988), a state organisation to foster the growth of Irish design for physical products. My focus is digital products and Red Lemonade is based in the original KDW design studio – I meticulously planned this with Machiavellian cunning since I was about eight, funded by my Communion money.

What was your biggest mistake, and what did you learn from it?

Taking advice from people with no ‘skin in the game’ has always been a big mistake. Only seek advice or work with people who have something to lose, just like you.

Trial and error will always bring mistakes, but it’s a superior strategy for progress – just make sure it’s small mistakes!

How do you get the best out of your team?

Leave them alone so they can get on with what they do best, and provide upskilling opportunities and flexibility.

As a little treat, we finish the day a bit early during the summer months as we have the extra-long sunny evenings in Ireland’s south-east.

Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector?

In tech and design, the problem is similar – a lack of women in critical roles. As an example, when organising a Tech Thursday Kilkenny meetup, it takes about 10 times the effort to get a woman speaker and many I do find do not have the confidence to speak. We need more women role models in whatever sector by creating more coaching opportunities and programmes as part of events.

Did you ever have a mentor or someone who was pivotal in your career?

I can’t say anyone was pivotal, but lots of people have helped out along the way. It has worked really well and, whilst not shy seeking advice, I’m always aware that you have to give back. The biggest no-brainer in business and life is that givers gain.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

These two will keep your highlighter pen busy:

  • Anything You Want by Derek Sivers – leisurely afternoon read with tons of insights for your business at whatever stage. Read the bit about ‘ideas are just a multiplier of execution’ – we pretty much built the company delivery around this when working on client products. Execution is more important than ideas and the iceberg under any innovation is execution.
  • Rework by David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried. It’s written in easy-to-digest snippets on how to run a company, conversational, gets to the point, no faffing.
What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

Recently I have been using Bear app for jotting down ideas/notes and it perfectly syncs with all devices. It’s past that first few shaky weeks when most apps inevitably end up in the app graveyard – Vive la Bear!

The cheapest Kindle is great for books and articles and indiscriminately throwing around without a worry. Easy to capture notes and insights to then transfer for final edit notes in Google Slides, and reading is always based around where we are in the business so it adds something extra to each project.

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