Ethical and sustainable design with Sebastian Mueller (MING Labs)

In this episode, Sebastian Mueller (MING Labs) talks about:

  • How UI/UX framework in China and the rest of Asia are unique and highly localised
  • Design strategies for early startups and ideas that have not achieved product-market fit
  • Why revealed preferences provide better insights for designers than reported ones
  • How design is a powerful driver for growth in any business
  • How designers have the power to reshape the world, and change human behaviour 
  • How and why Ming Labs bootstrapped its way to become a global design services agency

Podcast information:

About the guest

Sebastian has been the co-founder and COO of MING Labs since 2011, which is a digital innovation company working with the world’s leading brands to spearhead new business models. His mission is to transform the old economy, for new visions, values and ventures to redesign our systems, products and services for the better. 

Find him here:


Books, tools, people, frameworks mentioned in this episode:

Ricky Willianto  0:00  

growth comes with costs cost that you internalise in your business such as marketing, sales and design, and knows that you incur, unknowingly to the ecosystem and the world such as pollution, congestion, and even consumerism. As a designer, Sebastian has a bold mission for Ming labs to create products and solutions that are ethical and sustainable for the world. He doesn’t believe that success and sustainability are mutually exclusive in business. And in fact, through his work at Ming labs, he shows his clients the key to unlocking solutions and ways of working that are better for both the environment and the bottom line. Tune in to listen more about how businesses can tap into great designs as a source of growth. And why is the bastion believes that great designers have the power to shape the world. My name is Ricky Willianto, co founder of Raven green, and the host of the growth multiplier podcast. Through this podcast, I hope to uncover the pathways, startups and companies have taken in the journey of growth, share some stories from the trenches, and hopefully identify patterns and hacks that can be replicated by businesses in Asia and the rest of the world. I hope you enjoyed the show. Hey, Sebastian, thanks so much for joining me today. Really excited to have you. So before we begin, it’ll be nice to get you to introduce yourself really quickly. And tell us a little bit about a company that you’ve built and your company building and share with us what you do you know, what kind of plans you have and how it’s been doing so far.


Sebastian Mueller  1:25  

Absolutely. Thank you for inviting me on to maybe give you a little bit of a background. So I was originally from Germany, but I’ve been living in Asia now for over a decade. I’ve been in China for five years, Singapore for six years. And throughout that time, I’ve been working on basically just one thing, which is the Ming labs, which is the company that I started together with two partners in 2011, in Shanghai. And so at the core now, what Ming Labs is, is really a business innovation studio, where we work with many large companies, but also with entrepreneurs, to help them to come out with new products, new services, also venture building. And on the way there we essentially started out in the very beginning in 2011, in Shanghai with a strong focus on UX design. So back in the day, one of the reasons why we got into that was that we already saw in the market, things like the surge generation of the iPad doing really well a lot of these startups now on mobile distribution doing really well. And all of them having great software experiences. UX has maybe been a word at that point for, let’s say, four or five years, it’s still been pretty young. But we also did in the b2c space. My partner’s actually came from IBM and another b2b software startup. And we saw the b2b space very much lagging behind in experience. And so we decided to start a company that focuses on bringing great experiences, specifically in software to the enterprise, so that people who just work in a business can actually work with software that supports that, well, that takes into account the needs that they have, and that they can really feel positive about using every day. And from there, we basically started our journey to then over time now grow to six offices globally, with more than 80 people and trajectory that if you ask us where we want to go over the next five years, hopefully takes us deep into the sustainability space, because that’s the next big thing that we need to conquer. And we need to support.


Ricky Willianto  3:28  

So that’s a really interesting start. Right? So you started in China, the business. Now you are based in Singapore, right? And your partners I recall, are not even in Asia, they are based in Europe.


Sebastian Mueller  3:39  

So one of them was in China for 15 years, and then moved to Germany. And the other one yeah, basically started out and also in Germany when we were starting the business quite distributed.


Ricky Willianto  3:49  

Yeah. Interesting. So a couple of questions I have about how you started first, how come the company started in China? Right. And I think second is like UI UX back then UI UX design consultancy back then was still pretty unheard of, especially in Asia. Right. So what made you think that that was a really good business opportunity to pursue?


Sebastian Mueller  4:09  

Yeah, so we started in China, essentially, because we all lived there at the time. So I already did an exchange semester in Shanghai when I was studying. And then I wanted to go back there. So I was there looking for, basically what to do. And then my two partners, they were working on a b2b software startup at the time that was based out of Shanghai, although one of them was living in Germany, but travelling back and forth a lot. And the other one lived in Shanghai at that point already for 10 years. And we basically decided to start in Germany and China and parallel but the studio was in China, because that’s where we had a network of talent. We already had the designers in our network. We really started to also attract interest in talent there was in Germany in the beginning was mainly just for acquiring clients and for finding some of that business because in China at that time, as you say, there was no appreciation for UX, at least in the way that we think about it. When we think about clean design, we think about really whitespace, we think about, you know, having a clear information architecture, all these things. At that time, the Chinese internet was dominated by a lot of very much blinking and flashing websites that were using all the real estate to cram more ads and more offers into little little space. And so our market wasn’t China at the beginning market in the beginning was actually Germany. So we had one partner there selling the business, and then we had the office in China delivering against it. And then over time, of course, we also started to reach out in Shanghai and beyond to see, could this be something viable in China as well, and I think around 2013, we develop the first clients, and then over the next two, three years, it really also blew up in China. It just took a while longer, but by now, I would even say that China, in terms of the UX and customer experience is one of the leading markets in the world.


Ricky Willianto  6:00  

So how do you start, you know, from a market that do not have a lot of appreciation for UI UX at beginning, right, you mentioned that you did have a partner to help you sell in Europe, right. But I just don’t understand how does that work? And how do you expand the business, you know, being remote as well.


Sebastian Mueller  6:15  

I remember facing multiple challenges in the beginning. One of them is, of course, that we started what would be perceived from the outside as a sort of agency saying, Hey, we can help you design your software. But we didn’t have a portfolio. That’s already a big, big hurdle in a space where typically people come out and pitch the stuff that they’ve done before and we started from so one of the things we had to do there. On the one hand side, we use a little bit of the stuff that my partner stated their previous startup, but that also actually do more conceptual work, that we would pick hypothetical problems and come out with solutions or to redesign sayings that we would just have a different take on, and to show what that would look like to basically come up with a portfolio that we can then show. And that is maybe more hypothetical, but in the end helped us to make a tangible what we do, because otherwise, there was just very little chance of people taking a chance on us when we had nothing to show. And that was true both in Germany and in China at the same time. And then in the Chinese market. Specifically, what we did was religious hustle. So I remember at the time, we were like four or five people and I would regularly go out to networking meetings of the German chamber, I would try to join these different business groups that would meet for drinks and mingle. So I would just go out regularly try to meet as many people as I could try to understand who else is out there? How can we add value to them? Because often times and I never say that to my clients. But it was of course true for us in the beginning as well, the thing that you think you’re selling is not necessarily what the client is actually looking to buy. And so while we tried to sell UI UX for the client, it’s never about that. If they don’t have to buy UI UX, and they still get the results. They’re looking forward. They’re very happy. They’re looking for outcomes. And so we really had to understand what are these outcomes that we can tie ourselves to that we can talk to clients confidently and say, Okay, if you, for example, want to make sure your business is visible online, which at the time in 2011 was still an important thing to do, especially for, for example, foreign companies in China, making sure they have a website that is visible locally, that also gets indexed by search engines that make sure they are found digitally, then you will need to work with us on designing and building those kinds of software that also helps you that to be found that that’s in a concrete business result, and that we were tying or everything that we did to these business results. And over time, that also really helped us to get some local business. Because of course, we were sitting on a gross market, right, China over the last 10 years went like this, the internet in China went exactly the same direction. So it didn’t take too much skill also, to be honest, to just wait it out until the point when this would take off. But we did have to tie ourselves to the right kind of levers to make sure that then we also the right space to take advantage of it.


Ricky Willianto  9:08  

Yeah, you guys definitely time did well, just before on the market exploded with the demands for your kind of services. I think you guys have really prime yourself to be there, which is really good. How has the business grown so far in China? Like you know, you’re now based in Singapore is so anyone in China who is running like an office there?


Sebastian Mueller  9:24  

Yeah, absolutely. We still have two offices, actually. One in Shanghai was about 20 people and one in Suja was about six people, man. So we have a general manager, but those are the only foreigner we have left. And everybody else knows how to present Chinese because those are the market changes very quickly. We’re in the beginning, when we really started to sell locally, especially Chinese clients were actually very interested to work with a French creative director and a German UX designer and they wanted to learn and see what they can get from these Western influences that have a different skill set a different take on things. I think by now There’s so much local talent, but also just this confidence that we as Westerners don’t really understand the local market. And we’re just absolutely true that it doesn’t make much sense to work with foreigners for the Chinese market. And so we also had to, of course, then change over time, our team composition. But now it’s like a completely local team. And across these two offices, basically were written delivering end to end strategy, design and development services. So over the last years, I would say we have grown to I mean, from the beginning was four people when we started in 2011. To now 25, across two officers, revenues grew a bit above that level. But we also managed to overtime raise a bit our rates, which is not easy to do in China, it’s a very, very price conscious market. It’s a very price competitive market. But we pick the kind of segments where we could also price us as a premium. So with that set up, I think typically we grow about 10 to 15%, year on year, which for an agency that also doesn’t have any kind of outside funding is a healthy amount, that you’re not getting any kind of breakneck growth where maybe you are riding a wave that stops working, and then you have way too many people sitting around, but also you keep on having a decent trajectory. And of course, one of the things that’s just a truce in China is that as a foreign company, but also generally as an SME, and so was our setup, getting any kind of decent financing loans, working capital is basically impossible. And of course, the business that we have is not really VC, investable in any sense. And we’re also quite happy and quite adamant on staying independent and being able to basically call the shots and remain our own captain. So we’re also not really keen on that. And so we always have to find the pace that allows us to, yes, capture potential and ideally grow with the market, but also not overdo it in order to make sure that we’re not exposed to any sudden downturns or loss of clients.


Ricky Willianto  12:00  

Yeah, there’s a lot to unpack there, what you said, right, so you talked a little bit about trends with UI UX in China. And in the past, when you start to, there’s a lot of looking for inspiration, right, so a lot of people see what other countries are doing, and trying to like bring some inspiration back locally. But as you’re saying, right now, a lot of those insights are more locally grown, because the market has matured, I think it’s very evident, even in your team composition, right. Like you need a lot more locals to help understand what’s going on in the market. So I think that’s quite an interesting point you made, I think the other point you made was around how you’ve been able to grow sustainably. And that is quite an important aspect of your business, love to unpack like that with you. But for now, let’s talk a little bit about how you see that trend of UI UX have changed in China, what makes you think that the market has been able to grow so fast from the perspective of having a great customer understanding, having a great understanding of what makes a good design? Right? And why do you think China has caught up with the rest of the world so quickly? And also, right now, they’re probably leading in the market in a lot of different ways. Right? So what do you think are some of the things that made them so far ahead in the market,


Sebastian Mueller  13:06  

I think the philosophy of design and China, the way it’s been done is completely different than when we look at the principles that we have. I mean, you go all the way back to, for example, the German Bauhaus era, where even you just take the more recent kind of design thinking all of these things are very much rooted in a balance of aesthetics and functionality, and also quite a lot of research, to be honest, where this what I’ve seen over the last 10 years or so, maybe less, but basically, or whatever the recent time period, is that design in China is extremely functional. It’s not really that much about aesthetics. And also that actually, it’s very evolutionary, I don’t think there’s a lot of research happening. To be honest, I think there’s a lot of testing happening. And it’s a rapid testing at a scale that produces just incredible results and winners and losers in a way that design is a result that is picked by the customer rather than something that is really very deliberately planned by the company. So for example, when we look at a category like ride sharing, I had in the beginning when it came up, I was there at the time, when ride sharing was becoming really massive in China. I was there when Uber first launched, I was there when the whole battles were playing out between all these different companies. At some point, it was estimated that you had 1000 startups in China who were offering ride sharing services. And of course out of this in the end through mergers, and of course, you’re also shut down through various actions, one now emerged, right? But this also means that there were 1000 different designs and maybe in some ways they were similar. Maybe in some ways they were different. And in the end through this evolutionary process of having so many starting points and then converging towards one, you always have the understanding of Okay, what did the user prefer if you merge two cards, Nice together, you’re looking at not only, of course, merging business operations, but also which is now actually better product. And what can we learn from the alzahra. That’s always based on analytics, because they just put it out there. And then if people like it, if people interact with it, if the conversion rates are better, they’ll just take it. And they are not judgmental or dogmatic about saying, Oh, no, but that doesn’t look nice. I know. But this is not aesthetic, there’s a yada, yada, yada, it’s all very practical. It’s all about what works, this evolutionary approach to design. And there’s also very functional and pragmatic approach to design, I think has evolved into a design language that we wouldn’t really appreciate that much in pure Western context, I don’t think either that you can, except for maybe the very simplified interfaces like Tick tock, which essentially is no interface, just like swiping and flipping. But other applications that are popular in China, I don’t think you can transplant those designs and say they would work in the West. But they work very, very well in China, because they have always been involved with the user, and on the user, which is technically one of the foundational principles, also, of course, in design thinking that we want to iterate and test a lot. But this is also the things where I think the Chinese companies are willing to move much, much faster. On the iteration cycle, they don’t really do much research, to be honest.


Ricky Willianto  16:15  

So if we talk about principles, right, this is a bit tricky. So there is one school of thought that you mentioned, which is the academic approach of doing proper research, understanding, you know, customer behaviour habits, like psychology, and using that to derive what kind of experience and you I will work, right? Well, as you know, as you mentioned, the Chinese or what I’ve done is the are very iterative, in the approach, writing tests really quickly, they implement what customers respond well to, and that’s helped them move really, really fast. Right? Do you have any thoughts around what you think is a more relevant approach, especially when it relates to company building,


Sebastian Mueller  16:52  

as in generally, there is a certain market dependence. I mean, one of the reasons that Chinese companies can do that is because you’re sitting on a natural whole market of 1.3 billion people. And of course, it’s more complicated than that. It’s not as simple as saying that there’s Yes, first tier cities, second tier cities, different geographies, and not one easy kind of book to scale. But there is a massive, massive whole market and burning through, let’s say, 1000 users who might be served the version of the software that they don’t like, it doesn’t make much of a difference. To be honest, there’s always 1000 more and always 1000 more words, this in smaller markets, like in Singapore, if you’re burning through 1000 users, you actually have already disgruntled potentially quite a significant part of the market. Right. So small, as I think there’s something about that. But then in general, and especially if resources are scarce, and we have to first find our way around, I think a pragmatic approach to design makes a lot of sense. And doing a lot of very design driven research is I don’t think that advisable for startups, I think generally doing your research for sure, trying to really frame the problem, right, and making sure that you have a good understanding of the market before going forward. But that doesn’t have to be very much about the sign. Actually, a lot of startups and I mentor and multiple accelerator programmes, I feel that design is oftentimes just getting in the way in these early stages. Because if you make something look nice, you can actually get false positives on your user tests where they react positive to something that is looking very nicely, and they might forgive it as a flaws. But then when it comes to actual adoption, it will not forgive it those flaws anymore. So you get false positives in your early tests, just because it looks nice. And I think going out with something more raw and iterating on that is something quite advisable for early stage companies. Whereas if we look on the business side, if we look for big enterprise companies, they can often not afford to do that, because they would potentially not live up to their reputation, they have an image that they have to protect, to have a brand they have to protect, they should invest much more to get it right. And they also have much more leverage. But startups have nicer. And so they should take advantage of that and rather move fast and dirty, rather than trying to invest too much in research and in design, to be honest.


Ricky Willianto  19:11  

So if we were to look at Southeast Asia specifically, right, China, as you mentioned, is a unique market. They are their own market, right? So in Southeast Asia is very different, right? Like we talked about Singapore, four or 5 million people, Max, right? If you’re a startup in Singapore, you want to be a big startup, you have to think more regionally. Now when it comes to Southeast Asia, the fragmentation of the country and the user behaviour and even the demographic and economic status of the different groups that you’re trying to serve. The gap can be quite big, right? How do you design a product that can appeal, I guess, more universally for a fragmented region like Southeast Asia? And I’m sure you’ve done that a lot, you know, being based in Southeast Asia working with all this regional clients, how do you balance that, you know, being not overly localised, I guess, but still being relatable enough for you to be able to scale a product.


Sebastian Mueller  19:58  

That’s very Interesting beast. And as always depends on the design challenge to be honest, like if we, for example, are working with a company that is looking to target most of the target segments that are living in the kind of first tier cities and the various countries like Bangkok, Jakarta, KL, etc, they are in some ways, the kind of services they use the kind of life they live the kind of disposable income they have more similar to each other than they would be to second tier and third tier citizens in the same country, which is interesting. So if, for example, we would be looking at a regional play targeting these kinds of demographics, we could mainly focus on these people living in these large urban areas. And one of the fairly easy shortcuts that you could take, for example, if you don’t have a lot of time for research is to understand what services are they already using today than if you know that they are used to grab or go jack used to shop your Lazzara, then for example, going with patterns that have already been established, that we know are already working for 10s and hundreds of millions of people, you cannot go wrong using those design patterns. And using the language that has already been established, you cannot go wrong, because that has already been put into their minds who repeat behaviour they have already purchased many, many times they have taken many, many rights. They know how it works. And if you can tap on that, that’s perfect, because you remove friction. If you’re trying to introduce something new to the market, if you’re trying to be fancy about that you’re trying to maybe even do something in what you perceive to be a better way. But it’s something the market is used to, you’re going to have to pay a lot of education money, which is not something you typically have as a startup, which you might have as a large company. But really depending on what you want to achieve there. If we’re going a bit more rural. And we’re starting to also really start to like kind of contracts start to like comparables, I think the only way is to go there and to be there. So when we do our work in the beginning, it’s always about of course fast getting up to speed with research, contextual inquiry. So for example, we took a project to design service for farmers in Indonesia, and and the first thing you need to go to do is go out there and really visit them, speak with them, observe them during the relevant tasks that you’re trying to potentially introduce a new service to get your insights in the field, which is also why as a startup, for example, in agritech, I don’t think that doing that out of Singapore purely works very well. I think actually having at least the people working on the commercial side and the product development side regularly onside with the potential customers is extremely important. Because otherwise, you could easily sit in your ivory tower, look out on a nice cityscape. And imagine what you believe a farmer’s life and then build a solution for your imaginary farmer who doesn’t exist. I think


Ricky Willianto  23:05  

that trap, you can even easily fall into that trap being in Jakarta, right? Because if you’re doing agritech, being in a capital city and sitting in your nice office in the middle of the city, it doesn’t help you understand the customers, right? So even in Jakarta, if you’re in those kinds of industries, you really need to get on the ground and understand what’s going on. I’m just curious, you have worked with quite a lot of startups, and I think early stage companies as well. And I’m just keen to hear your thoughts on how design or design principles help early stage ideas, find product market fit. I think the reason we had this question was because you mentioned something along the lines of like, design can get in the way of understanding what the true problem is. And I do experience that quite a bit. Sometimes even within my own team, like we tend to want to make something pretty intuitive, without actually having a basic understanding how this can solve the problem. Right. But I guess like with early stage company, there is that balance that is quite important to achieve. Right? You cannot give people a completely shoddy product that they can’t even intuitively understand how to use right, and hope to understand if this solution works or not. Right. So what do you think is the role of design? And how much effort Do we need to put in into building a nicely designed product? To understand the customers? Well, at the early stages?


Sebastian Mueller  24:19  

I think the word principles says it well, there are key principles that I think will be extremely important, and they are not exclusive to design. But they are very much the basis for what we do, which on the one hand side is of course this whole idea of human centeredness or empathy. This is just even if you’re in business, even if you don’t care about design, it’s extremely important because it’s about being able to see the world from somebody else’s point of view. And in this case, from your customer’s point of view. And as I said earlier, it’s oftentimes the case that a customer their mind is not buying what a company in their mind is actually selling and being able to understand that and being able to transcend your own view. In your own boundaries is incredibly important. And whether you do that through message from the design thing, the toolkit such as contextual inquiry, and as we’re saying this or whether you have other ways of getting that kind of level of empathy and customer centeredness, does doesn’t. But you have to be able to take the perspective or to try to take the perspective of another person and try to also critically look at yourself from that perspective, I think that is a very important kind of principle. Another one is the whole idea around real world evidence. So through continuous exposure to the customer, both across the discovery and research, budget, also prototyping and testing. And of course, continuous testing, as you’re also then in the market and rolling out new features. You always get real world evidence, real world feedback from people who are exposed to something that they can actually react to. And we always say that kind of reactions or feedback that are based on actual interactions are recorded revealed preferences that are revealed by this interaction with the system are much more important than reported preferences that you just state by being asked the question. So I mean, very interesting example for me is always this difference between system one and system two thinking right system, one being the more slow, considered rational perspective that you can sit down and self report. And system two is actually the intuitive quick thinking that happens in the moment. And so I mean, we can all see that it was ourselves, right? If somebody asks us about our food behaviours, our exercise behaviours, and we just have a conversation about it. We might be rationalising a lot. And we might be saying, Oh, yeah, I cook regularly. And I always look at the macronutrients I exercise every second day. But then the reveals situation as well as that actually happened, right? When you actually share it with somebody and you observe them when they cook. Well, what do they actually do? Do they maybe just grab the fastest thing because they don’t have time. And they have this aspiration to be somebody better, but it’s actually not true. And then if you design a product for it is better self that is purely aspirational, as very likely to fail, because this is just something that people are rationalising, but most of the time, they’re not in that mode, most of the time, they are in the system to thinking and they need to deserve that customer and not the one that they aspire to be. And so these principles, I think, are very foundational. And we said, you also see that of course carried through and other kinds of schools of sight, right? Lean Startup also has customer centricity and real world evidence as well kind of frameworks have the same thing. It’s just principles that really will help you to build better solutions that actually address customers problems, rather than being in your own world and thinking about how the world should be an often worse, seeing that in your own little frame of mind that might not be applicable.


Ricky Willianto  27:53  

I love how you brought up the system, one system to the Thinking Fast and Slow concepts, incidents, because I think that aspirationally speaking, a lot of people have a very specific goal they have in mind, whether subconsciously or constantly, they know, like, Okay, this is what I want to achieve. And logically they try to rationalise their way to why they are on their way to getting to those goals, right. But the reality is systems who is triggering them to behave and creating either bad habits or good habits with that. And right, I see that nowadays, in a lot of companies, we’re building products, a lot of the attempt is in developing queues that is based on system to behaviour and thinking in the hope of achieving system one results. And I think it’s because you need to build an experience that will allow people to do things as easily as possible. And that is a system to cue and trigger, right, but achieving system one goals, because at the end of the day, the way the customers will think about the results. And the value that your product can offer is by rationalising it right like by seeing what quantitative results they can measure out of the behaviour they use of your product. So how do you think a designer should think about design that in that case, because that’s quite tricky, right? You do need to understand quite a lot about psychology, you do need to understand how the customers think, in a very deep sense, right? Would you lean more towards designing based on pure behaviour and people’s systems do thinking even though sometimes it may not be directly helping them with their system? one result? Like how do you think about this from a design perspective?


Sebastian Mueller  29:23  

Yeah, I think this is where you get into the very grey and murky area of design ethics and responsible design, which is extremely important, but also something that is emergent. I think we are grappling in the whole community with the kind of implications that some of the stuff that has been put out as having I mean, look at Facebook, and the kind of secondary and tertiary effects. This is also just very simple things like the iPhone that was at a design conference and one of the original designers of the iPhone was speaking then he was asked if he could do it all over again, knowing now that this technology is very addictive. And it can also lead to very negative outcomes for, for example, children if they’re exposed to it too early, etc. But what would he do differently? Or what could be done differently? And then it was a very evasive answer, just basically saying that Well, sorry, but the iPhone is like a fridge, what you put in there is your choice, that’s totally up to you, we just make the fridge and you make all the other choices. And that, for me is an evasion of responsibility. Because of course, all of the mechanisms that somehow make it so positively addictive, like the messaging, right, the push messages, the badges, all of that crap. They make it available to developers. And it’s not like the developers came up with that they made it available. And then they have to take responsibility for how it’s being used. And I see that increasingly, that they’re doing that right. And you see a trend at Apple, that they are moving more towards current technology and responsible technology usage, trying to help you with your maybe system, one goals, also trying to understand your screen time trying to also limit your screen time, etc. But we as designers, we have to take responsibility for that. And so in every project, that’s always of course, the question, what are the ethical components and of course, there are also sustainability components, which is even beyond one person system one and system two, it’s maybe you could call it a societal system one and system two, or discontinuous metal of short term or long term, where yesterday I want to serve a short term needs. And that need can be sometimes also expressed in getting something as quickly and cheaply as possible. And we don’t have any patience anymore. Everything has to come right now. It has to be on demand, it has to be available. Don’t let me wait for one day, give it to me in two hours. But that comes at an enormous cost in the long term. Because the short termism is so extreme that it actually is extremely resource inefficient, which then again, is a kind of trade off between this short term in the moment interests and the actual, long term interests that people would also state if you sit down with them, you have a conversation, you know, do you want there still to be an inhabitable planet for the children? If your children have children that I would find it hard to believe that many people would say yes, I don’t want that. Everybody wants that. But it’s something where it’s really hard to make trade offs. And so as designers, we have the power to design systems. And designers is very broadly, it’s both of course, digital, but then also organisations, I design social systems are designed everything in a way is designed, because somebody came up with it. And the designers of the systems have the power to think about and try to improve these trade offs, right, where ideally, the stuff that satisfies us right now, and we are happy with at the moment, also has a way of feeding into our long term goals. But this is something that is also subject to ongoing discovery, because these are complex systems, and you cannot always forecast how they will behave. So you can only do your best at the inception stage to think through negative consequences. But then you have a responsibility as a creator to monitor these consequences. And to see well is actually something going wrong. And is there stuff that we need to adjust along the way, because of course nothing is ever finished, our social systems are not finished, the products we build are not finished, nothing’s ever finished. So we need to make sure that as they evolve, they evolve in a direction that is also responsible.


Ricky Willianto  33:20  

Yeah. And it’s quite tricky and inhuman in general, you mentioned that we don’t think long term, you don’t even have to think about like the society at large, we can even just look at my own personal behaviour, right? Like the way we treat ourselves, you know, knowing what to eat, when to exercise, when to sleep, things like that, that we know have long term negative repercussions. And yet, we still adopt a lot of bad habits because of short term reward. Right? I think we’re just very poor long term thinkers, I think like, the other thing about design is that as an organisation, you always want ROI, right? Like when you design something as a company, I think that’s kind of like the virtue of a capitalistic world that we live in, you need to get results. And design is definitely a huge lever in getting growth. undoubtably, like you mentioned, there’s a lot of design that is intentionally put in like, you know, mobile apps games to get kids to purchase more than what they intended to write and get people more addicted to specific products and services. But at the same time, I agree with you, we do need to care about what is the societal, ethical, negative externalities that is created by this designs? How do you balance that though, as a designer, and also as a business owner, because you still need to be profitable, you need to be scaling your business all the time. Otherwise, no one’s excited about the business. How do you balance having that sustainable growth with being ethical in the process and not exploited by your customers in a very negative way or in a way that is unknown to them? How do we achieve that?


Sebastian Mueller  34:37  

So I mean, technically, if we do things for us, and if we are the client, which we sometimes are, I think it’s rather easy because we are owned by our founders by our partner. So that’s only something that we have to agree on. In terms of principles. We’re not beholden to investors. We’re not beholden to the stock market, the only buddy who needs to be excited about our growth trajectory is us. So we don’t have to answer to anybody else. If We can look ourselves in the eyes, and we can say, We are proud of what we’re doing, then that’s, that’s all that matters. I think that’s easy, it becomes difficult when you talk to big corporations, the way to sometimes frame it is potentially as an actual hidden risk that can come at a large cost. So for example, if today, knowing what we know you on purpose, make a choice that you are fully aware of that actually is less sustainable, that will lead to more emissions that would actually have clear co2 footprint associated with it, then I would argue that also seeing where things are going in terms of pricing co2, when in terms of actually phasing out all of these technologies that have emissions associated with them, what you’re doing is really building a liability rather than an asset, because yes, in the short term, it might actually give you some returns. But potentially the cost that is associated with that, and long term might actually be extremely large. The same thing with, for example, unethical design. Also, for example, using machine learning or AI for persuasive kind of actions, like trying to use your data to frame things in a way that makes you more likely to buy, which is particularly considered in some areas manipulation, there will be repercussions for that, and they will not come tomorrow, but they will come and it’s pretty clear to see legal systems, governments are taking action, and the companies are being held to account that companies are being fined. And so you can also frame that as a risk that you’re actually building up that needs to be managed. That is something that we really consciously also then need to talk about, the problem you might have is that the person you’re working with, or the people you’re working with, they’re maybe also only in a job for two or three years, and then they will take the next job and the next job. So maybe they also stick the organisation with the consequences where they already have long advanced, which is a very much shorter Miss long service problem that exists in especially public organisations, which is a different problem that has to be solved. But at least for the work that we do, we can often find ways to have conversations about the implications not only about right now, what is the ROI but also what is potentially the impact down the line in terms of the risks and liabilities you’re building up?


Ricky Willianto  37:14  

Yeah, I think that’s a really good way of seeing and I guess making visible what is invisible, making clear what’s going to happen in the future. Now, I think really helps people to put things in perspective, not always easy, right? Because as you said, people’s incentives are not aligned. Some people are leaving in two years, they don’t care if the company is going to crumble in three years, right? They just want to maximise what they can get in the next two years. Right. So there’s definitely a lot of challenges like that, especially in large organisations.


Sebastian Mueller  37:37  

agenda is really very important thing that also within the systems that we’re building this thing underutilised especially for sustainability. Like I recently read the book invented wonder the shareholder letters by Jeff Bezos. And one of the things he says multiple times in the book is, I often get asked about what the future will hold, when I think about what will stay constant, what will not change. And what will never change is that people will want the lowest price, the fastest delivery, the biggest amount of choice. And I fundamentally disagree, I don’t think that this is a constant because all of this is taken out of context. When you put in context, the price when you put in context, the delivery speed. And you properly frame that choice by for example, let’s say on the page, right Amazon giving you a very clear comparison between, let’s say two sets of headphones. One of them is 999. The other one is 1599. But one of them as a customer reported your ability of one year, the other one of three years. Now which one is the better choice. Now it’s not about price, it’s about value, right? And your ability is also very much then of course impactful for, for example, sustainability. Or at least if you give people also the choice not only to say, Hey, I have included free shipping in five to seven days. And if I pay 199, I get it within one day, but also to say, well, this option has an effective carbon footprint of let’s say 30 kilos, and the other 110 kilos Now which one is the better choice? I don’t think that just framing things in the old way of what’s the prize? And how fast do I get it is the right way to think about the future. But we have to deal with the fact that our choices are more complex and have repercussions. And that also needs to be framed in the interfaces that we put forward.


Ricky Willianto  39:28  

I totally agree with you. I’m for your argument. At the same time. I feel like there is an element of you know, human beings not wanting to be guilty about what they’re doing with their life and with their decisions. That makes it very hard as well for us to make this transformation as a society, right. No one wants to be told that you know, every kilo of meat you consume is I don’t know how many gallons of water are being wasted how many acres of land being used to feed this right. No one wants to know details of that. What do you think is the role of designer then in making those, I guess a bit more appealing Because ultimately, again, it’s a systems to versus systems when thinking, right, your reaction to all these things can be very negative, because that’s kind of your immediate, you know, amygdala reacting to things, right. But at the same time, these are the facts that we need to face, we need to make better decisions, because all the decisions we’ve been making so far have been crappy. How do you push customers as well, not just organisations, they are, I’m saying they are accountable, right, they are responsible. But how do we also make customers realise that they are in the driver’s seat as well, they have control, they have the levers to pull in getting everyone to be on the same page about sustainability.


Sebastian Mueller  40:35  

It’s a very complex discussion. And there’s a lot of elements to this, like, for example, the one that I just talked about for framing choices, I think this is already very far down the value chain kind of tool. And I think there is increasing consumer awareness. And also, according to statistics, more and more consumers are trying to make choices that are better for planet and better for future generations. And so giving them this kind of information, at least offers them a choice, then, of course, that’s their choice to make. And then giving them for example, and also the tools to, I don’t know, whatever might be left of their carbon footprint to offset that, or whatever. That’s another thing that of course you can do for some things, the politics needs to come in government needs to come in and just put a ceiling and the floor on what is possible and what is not. So for example, carbon pricing is of course, great, but certain things should also be at some point just phased out completely. And that’s a reality. But the role of the designer, to be honest, if you want to have the most impactful role of the designer, number one is the actual product or service. So the product or service should already be designed in a triple top line framework with positive impact in mind. How can we look at this from a perspective that adds additional value to society and to the planet, rather than something that takes from it? And of course, how can we think through the next lives of that product, nothing is any more cradle to grave. It shouldn’t be. It should be cradle to cradle. And it might be different grades. But it doesn’t have to be that it’s always staying on the same trajectory. And once it’s a piece of headphone, it always will be a piece of headphone. But there always has to be this question of what’s next. What is the next life? What is the next life and what is the next life? And how do we make sure there are also the signifiers and affordances, that also the customer understands that this is not a terminal product to be thrown away. But it has a next life Iser within their own life and their own home where for example, containers can become flower pots. And as you’re saying that you have clear signifiers that actually, there is another use for a particular product or container, or than to make sure that there is a clear way of how this gets returned back into the tech cycle and eco cycle to have the right ways to refurbish reuse remanufacture. And this needs to be thought through at design stage, right when I’m designing a piece of technology, I’m making a lot of key decisions that will determine how this product can be reused, whether it can be repaired, like for example, one of the worst offenders was the worst, but one of the most also public offenders was the first generation of the apple EarPods. You couldn’t take them apart and recycle them properly, because that stuff’s just glued together. It’s not in any way modular, it’s not designed for repairability. And by the way, these MacBooks that we’re using, they’re less and less repairable, I remember having 10 years ago, a very nice MacBook that I was able to actually take apart, change the battery, it changed the RAM, I got


Ricky Willianto  43:44  

a book back then right.


Sebastian Mueller  43:46  

Now I can’t do nothing anymore. And no more, I have to take it somewhere because are glued together and all in the name of aesthetics. And so that is where I think design is actually harmful. This is toxic design, where it’s just about shaving off the next millimetre and the next millimetre just so the thing is nice to touch. But making so many compromises down the line about executives repairability, about remanufacturing, etc, making sure to stuff could actually be, again, something useful, that it just creates liability for the planet. This is where design has the most power when we design products and services in a way that is positive. So the consumer doesn’t have to make that negative choice. But the consumer doesn’t have to choose between a rock and a hard place. Because every single day is shit. And yes, they have to live. So they have to do something. And I understand that. But there’ll be put in front of consumers choices that are actually positive and ideally contribute to the planet rather than take away from it. So we have to design with new constraints that we’ve never had before. And we have to embrace them. And I think this is where design has the most power. And the second most is when it comes to storytelling because yes, exactly what you say today, sustainability and the responsible choice is all associated with guilt, it’s associated with cutting back, it’s associated with no joy, doing less of what I like getting worse products not flying anymore not doing the things I want to do. It’s all about reducing what I’m doing. And you know, sometimes the conclusion could be maybe it would even be better if we weren’t here. Maybe it would be better if there were no humans. So it’s a very reductionistic mentality,


Ricky Willianto  45:22  

you just have to reduce things, right. That’s the only way right. It’s all


Sebastian Mueller  45:26  

about cutting back. That’s the wrong narrative. I don’t believe in that narrative, I don’t subscribe to that narrative, I believe we can design products and services that actually contribute to the planet and to society, and also make profits for business. And then we also have to tell that story. And we have to tell a joyful story, we have to tell a story of a better world, a nicer world, you can still fly, it’s not a problem. But we are going to do that on a fuel source and on the energy source that is not going to destroy the planet. And maybe there is even ways to and there are experiments with fuel sources that actually dissolve in a way that put more positive substances back into the atmosphere, rather than any sort of negative emissions. And if we can design systems like that, that actually replenish and the more you do something, the better it gets. Now, that’s fantastic. So we have to design those systems. And then we have to talk about, that’s where design has the most power.


Ricky Willianto  46:17  

Yeah, I guess I agree. I think a lot of the thinking about value has always been the dollar value, which is the profit and oftentimes profit is very short term. So again, I think getting companies to have the three P’s people profit and planet are quite an important way to realign everyone. In a sense, I love to talk about this. We’ve been using an hour, one hour that we’ve allocated. And I’ve only gone down one thread, I told you, I was going to ask you another question about why you bootstrap by I can understand a bit more now why you and your founders, but your co founders have decided to retain control the company or you have like a very idealistic, very specific viewpoint that I think is very difficult to align with a lot of quote unquote, investors. Because I think, again, they’re very ROI centric. And by ROI, I mean, like the one p the profit. So how is that decision shaped the company so far, in the past 10 years? So how has that decision shaped the company so far in you, as far as one of the co founders, how do you feel about having made that decision and not waver along the way in 10 years,


Sebastian Mueller  47:14  

I mean, on the one hand side, obviously, it’s allowed us to retain control. And it also allowed us to not only work in an on a business that we like, and believe in, but also being able to combine that with our changing lifestyle needs, which is also not something we take for granted. Right? That was my choice to move to Singapore was a personal choice, because I wanted a change of scenery. And I wanted personally to live here. But I’m also able to balance that with the needs of the business. Similarly, of course, you know, people’s needs change in terms of family, one of my partners now has three kids in the beginning, he didn’t have any, you have different levels of commitment you could put in you have different things that you need to also work around in terms of schedules in terms of things you can do. And so this is one thing that I think has been for us as people very positive and helpful, because it allows us to also live lives that we enjoy and have a business that we enjoy. And I believe that when you look at the company itself, and when you speak to also people in the company, one thing is we have a very low turnover rate, even in China, even in Singapore, where turnover rates anecdotally and especially in our industry, which is it related are quite high. And people stay a very short amount of time, there’s not too much loyalty. Actually, we have a lot of people who have been with us for a really long time when we have compared to industry standards, very low turnover rates, because I think we’re able to foster a culture and an environment that isn’t a real alternative to in China, in the tech space, your reality is 996, you overwork you work six days a week, that’s very heavy. Like even in state owned enterprises, you still work a lot potentially also in management systems that are more micro managerial that are not really that conducive to the expression of the individual. And we are a real alternative, where it’s not about Okay, I could be a designer here or there. And here, I make this much you I make that much. Actually, the people in our company, I’m sure that if they went to the open market, and they went to these companies, they could actually make more money. But there is a context to you, that is also a real alternative in terms of the culture, and in terms of what we’re offering as both the work itself, but then also the end of work, where it’s just like, yeah, we respect that. You have a life, we very much respect that you need to live that life and to have the commitments to your families and to make sure that this is all good as well in order for you to be a healthy and happy human being. And so when clients come over with extraordinary or extreme demands, we push back and we can also make that decision because we are the owners and we believe in these principles ourselves that we lived. On the flip side that might mean that people who are looking for a very steep career trajectory for Earning high levels of salary even if they’re heavily overworking. Like they might be in the consulting world, but they get to see more they stay in five star hotels, whatever it is, these people are people we want to attract, that is talent that we won’t get, we are fine with that. We don’t have a problem with that. That is also a choice that we have made.


Ricky Willianto  50:18  

Yeah, I feel like as a founder, it’s important to have a team that is aligned with you like from a value perspective, not just from a company value perspective, but like from your personal value perspective, because these are people that you’re spending a lot of time with, right? And if you want to build something that is truly impactful and meaningful, that’s aligned with your purpose of like, why you think you’re here, then you need to have a bunch of people who’s like that. So you do need to make some of those trade offs sometime, right? You can’t win everyone over, you have to make sure that you surround yourself with the right people. Hey, thanks so much for sharing all that. I think that’s been a really great session. So I want to end this with a quick fire round. Are you ready for this? Sure. Let’s do it. Okay, cool. The first one is, what is the one metric that you think is the most important forming laps


Sebastian Mueller  50:59  

I have asked is still at the moment revenue to be honest, because in the end, we have to always balance our growth against that, we have to see how we can also measure that across the different offices to break it down into more specific metrics. But top line revenue for us is at the moment, the most important. Got it?


Ricky Willianto  51:17  

What is the one tool or software that helps you or your company grow? What’s your favourite one?


Sebastian Mueller  51:22  

For me, personally, super human. I really like the speed, the efficiency, the scheduling functionalities, it’s just an email tool that makes me much more efficient.


Ricky Willianto  51:31  

Got it. And any favourite growth strategy? I think maybe in your case, you can even share what’s your favourite design strategy.


Sebastian Mueller  51:38  

If we talk about the growth on the business side, I think for me, personally, the one that I’ve really found for me is social media. I’ve been very consistent now with the last four years and I’ve built a following of more than 22,000 people on LinkedIn, we’re also quite some business comes from so for me that’s been great really helps to position the company and are in line with the thought leadership that we’re trying to put out and promote. And I think that’s something that I also recommend to people who are willing to put themselves out there because it really helps to also associate yourself with the kind of values that you’re willing to talk about. I think that’s been working really, really well. That’s great. Yeah,


Ricky Willianto  52:13  

what’s your favourite go to resources for your own growth can be a book, newsletter, website, podcasts, anything?


Sebastian Mueller  52:18  

Definitely books, I have a huge bookshelf behind me. And I always make sure that at least 50% of those are unread. So whenever I need something, or I want to have a new inspiration, I can pick up something I haven’t looked into before. And I can start to dive into that deeper. So books for me are the ultimate source of development. I love that


Ricky Willianto  52:39  

you’re trying to keep like 50% of the book on your shelf and read to inspire you to read, I have 50%, my book on read because I struggled to read them.


Sebastian Mueller  52:48  

The value of libraries and what you haven’t read yet, the more it can offer you in terms of valuations, the better.


Ricky Willianto  52:55  

That’s a really good way of thinking about it. I’ll take that. My final question is, who are some of your role models in terms of company building, if you have anyone in Asia specifically, there’ll be great if not, we can name anyone from any part of the world


Sebastian Mueller  53:07  

role models, I don’t typically do that. I usually don’t think in those terms. But of course, there’s been a lot of people who’ve been impactful for stuff that we have done. And we’re also looking around and looking out for if I would say that, I mean, of course, in our industry, if we looked at idea we would never go wrong, specifically Tim Brown and the work he put out in the books that he wrote around creative confidence. And of course, the design thinking process, I mean, for sure. It’s also something that absolutely you have to recognise I mentioned then, for example, frog design, of course, with their very famous founding director, Hartmut Esslinger, was built a culture out of a German design studio that is now global and extremely influential in the industry. I think these are of course icons that we also look to and aspire to learn from. Otherwise, if I personally were to look here, and I don’t know which way it might have influenced me, but the person that I deeply admire is jack Ma. For two things. On the one hand side, the extreme humility that he displays, which is just credible, whenever you hear of talk, whenever you hear him tell a story, or such as making a fool of himself on some company of evidence is so credible. And so I said, it’s really amazing. But of course, those are the brazenness was really standing up to the regulator in China, which has now cost him quite dearly. But it’s something that is also very admirable in terms of living up to your principles and speaking out loud that I think is definitely a role model.


Ricky Willianto  54:39  

Awesome. I have one last question, which is what is the best way for people to reach out to you and also what kind of people you want reaching out.


Sebastian Mueller  54:45  

So generally by either LinkedIn or email is the best, very religious on answering all of my messages. I don’t think anything goes unanswered. I always love to get in touch with people who just want to bounce off ideas Connect around topics of especially Sustainability, innovation, entrepreneurship, as we just discussed, I mean, these are topics I care about deeply. And I’d love to get new perspectives. But of course, I mean, if there’s any people out there who would also love to potentially become a part of mech labs and the various roles that we offer, I always love to hear from ambitious people who would be interested to join us and potentially be part of our journey. Awesome. Hey, Sebastian,


Ricky Willianto  55:22  

it’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much for joining me today. Thank you, Ricky. Thank you so much for listening to this podcast. Check out other episodes to hear more growth stories and hacks from experts who have been there and you can find our show on iTunes, Spotify, or via our website slash growth multiplier. See you next time.


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About Growth Multiplier

The pursuit of growth is never-ending for any business – from a small startup all the way to a large global corporation. The Growth Multiplier podcast examines pathways, strategies, and hacks companies have explored and tested in their efforts to scale up their businesses. 

In each episode, host Ricky Willianto – co-founder of Ravenry – speaks with CEO’s, growth hackers, product managers, and marketers all around Asia to find nuggets of wisdom and insights from their journey multiplying growth. 

Ricky and his guests discuss viral marketing, community building, pricing strategies, channel development, and also company culture and people. Growth Multiplier explores not only replicable successes, but also phenomenal failures that we all can learn from.

Growth Multiplier is produced by the team behind Ravenry.

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