A conversation with Mark Kawano, Storehouse CEO & former Apple designer

Note: This post was originally published on the True Ventures blog.

Mark Kawano is an idea machine. This summer, I had the pleasure of working with him as an intern at a startup called Storehouse—a visual storytelling platform. Mark started his career as a designer at Adobe, where he worked on the Creative Suite for several years. He then went on to join Apple as a designer and a User Experience Evangelist before founding Storehouse in 2013.

Most photo services are the digital equivalent of throwing your photos into a shoebox in the closet. Platforms like Facebook and Flickr force your photos into a grid of uniformly-sized thumbnails, or worse, a slideshow. And apps like Instagram and Snapchat are about moment sharing, one photo at a time, rather than storytelling.

If Instagram is a word, then Storehouse is a sentence. The Storehouse app allows people to combine photos, videos, and text in a magazine-like layout and easily craft a narrative around the content they care about. I sat down with Mark to get his take on starting a company, the role of design, and the future of publishing.

Aaron: How and why did you decide to found Storehouse?

Mark: We basically started with the problem, not really knowing what we were going to do. We knew that iPad was awesome and that digital publishing was broken. Tim had all this experience at The Daily) [the first iPad-only newspaper, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp]. I was working with all these publishers [as a User Experience specialist at Apple]. We knew that things weren’t caught up. We also had the business acumen to know that what we were working on had to be something new. It wasn’t just about taking a product that exists in a current market and making it better. It wasn’t about a better publishing platform for publishers. It needed to do something different, but we didn’t really know what. If you look at iPad newsstand apps [in 2012], they looked good, but weren’t responsive at all. There was no interactivity.

We started in Hipstamatic’s office. It was a really cool space. I was friends with them, and when I told them I was leaving Apple they said, “We have some extra desks. You can use them.” I bootstrapped the company for the first six months we were in existence. It was just Tim [Donnelly, co-founder of Storehouse] and I. We didn’t really have many costs.

What did you see as the biggest problem with the existing publishers?

They were designing content for other platforms and just porting it over to the iPad. The big lesson that we’ve learned in the first six months since launching: the publishing platform of the future is actually multi-device. That’s why we’ve invested so much in our back-end. We want to have awesome front-ends on every device. Every single device gets touched.

Who did you work with when you were a User Experience Evangelist at Apple?

I worked with all kinds of companies—including all the major publishers. At one point, I had probably beta tested more software than anyone in the world. Every day I would download at least five to ten apps. I would meet with the developers and give them feedback to make their apps better.

I loved it … I could just be in this consulting role and critique people’s stuff, make them feel good, and walk away. I did not have to deal with all the hard stuff. But being a product person, I got frustrated with the impact I was having. I often thought “This app has potential and could be so much better.”

Was there a moment you knew you wanted to leave Apple or was it more of a gradual realization?

Once I realized that I wanted to get back to shipping products, I knew I had to leave Apple. I spent the first five years as a UI designer in the trenches. The interface designers do have a lot of impact, but the stuff I wanted to focus more on was higher level. And that was stuff that would be more executive level design decisions like what the product should be, how to sell it, etc. That’s stuff that Steve [Jobs] would tell us to do. We’d give feedback, but he was ultimately making the call. So I knew that I wanted to get back into the product side, and I knew that at Apple, I wasn’t going to be a VP.

Did you get to interact with Steve much?

For several years I would see him almost every day because he worked on the floor above me. But only once or twice a release cycle would I have any kind of direct interaction with him.

What was the fundraising process like?

When we were pitching Storehouse to investors, we rarely got through the whole pitch deck. We usually got three slides in, showed the demo, and it would usually just be conversation after that. Now, Storehouse seems so familiar, but back then it was like, “Holy shit! You can do that? Creation on an iPad?” All this stuff was crazy to demo to people. And we were just two guys that built this experience that was better than a lot of the other products out there.

I didn’t have any idea back then about how companies work or how hard it is. All these things are really challenging.

When we got our first term sheet, we were like, “We can finally get out of this room! We can buy computers and our own desks.” As we quickly grew, our new office got claustrophobic. It was a one bedroom loft and felt like a total startup instead of just a couple guys working on an app. And when we launched, we were featured on the app store and got a lot of traction quickly. It was very exciting.

How do you strike the balance between always thinking about the future, but also being involved in the day-to-day of the company?

The cool part about being a founder is that Tim and I are building the company that works for us. That’s how all companies have to be. I’m not the type of person who wants to be lovey-dovey; I’m going to think about the stuff that I obsess over: the product.

We need people that can check their egos at the door. If you need a lot of direction, this probably isn’t the best place for you. You’ll learn a ton, but we’re not going to constantly hold your hand through it. It’s more like, “Go in to the deep end and we’ll throw you a life preserver every once in a while.” But that’s how I like to manage. Tim and I, from the beginning, have thought that every person we hire has to be better than us at the job they do than we are. We both have tendencies to obsess over things and can at times be too controlling. We knew that if you can’t trust the person doing their job, than you’re not getting help and are instead just more stressed out.

One thing I try to tell the team not to worry about is our competitors. The stuff I’m concerned about is us. Money, politics, internal fighting—that’s what kills companies. It’s not really the competitors that kill a company. The companies that don’t succeed are the ones that just self-implode or run out of money. It’s not like the other players nudged them out. So I spend a lot of time thinking about culture, communication, and how to make sure things are going really well.

What was it like it at Adobe?

I was working on Photoshop at Adobe. That’s where I get a lot of my humility from. People yell at you because [the software] sucks for so many things. But it’s so nuanced, right? They say, “Why did you do this? You guys are such idiots!” But [what they don’t realize] is that they’re yelling at you about a feature that Disney animates their cartoons with. And Disney and their thousands of animators needs that feature.

We [at Adobe] knew about all these different use cases. But no one else knows about anything except for what they’re doing. Being put on that type of product early in my career was great. I saw that design is way harder than what it seems like from the outside. And that’s also where I fell in love with creation software. You’re enabling people to create stuff and to add value to the world. That is a really great feeling. I’ve always been fascinated with the creative process; the mindset that people get into and the psychology of how software can affect some of that for good.

Fast forward to today and we know the creation software like Storehouse needs to be social. But so much of this social stuff is addictive and creates fear of missing out rather. And that’s why we’ve always been cautious with scaling. The question we ask is: “How can we combine that creative spark that you get when you make something positive in Storehouse and scale that?“ Photography has always been my favorite medium because it has the power to teach people about alternative lifestyles and cultures. And with Storehouse, we love that so many stories are about raising awareness about a cause or teaching people about new places or cultures but in a very personal way.

What’ve been some of the more difficult things about running this company?

My wife and I had our second baby right when we launched. That was insane. So that’s just been hard in general. Just balancing the person who I want to be with the company I want to run with the dad I want be. It’s a marathon, and you’re sprinting the entire way. It’s just at the first mile now.

At a startup, things don’t just happen. If we let go for a week, nothing gets done. It’s not like you’re part of a bigger machine that’s going to just keep on going. We want to get to that point, but that’s almost the definition of startup. It’s just not naturally going to go. For me, I’m constantly making decisions on which areas I should spend my time on, which things are going to break us down. And while I’ve got a great team of advisors and investors nobody has the total context like me. That puts an enormous amount of pressure on a CEO.

Do you ever miss pushing pixels?

The thing I miss sometimes is not having to make so many decisions. That’s what you’re doing most of the time as CEO. It’s actually very similar to being a parent, where you have a partner … you’re making a million decisions a day about this person’s life and development and some of them just don’t matter at all and some of them matter greatly. And you need to spend all your time on the ones that matter greatly and hardly any of your time on the ones that don’t matter. No one’s gonna tell you which ones are the important ones and which ones aren’t. You’ve got to figure that out yourself. You can read parenting books, or business books, but they all contradict each other. It’s bullshit. It’s all very personal and without context, “what worked for me was:” But they don’t say that. They say, “this is how it works and this is what you should do if you want to succeed.”

What is the culture around design like compared to 5, 10 years ago?

Designers used to have to fight for a seat at the table. We were an afterthought in the software development process. Apple changed that when the iPod dominated the marketplace. Everybody knew that its success was because of how well designed the device, interface, and ecosystem around it was. The design was not an afterthought.

Back then I used to have many more friends that were working at agencies—IDEO, Frog, Ammunition—and now they’re almost all in-house or completely independent. I think it’s because so much of the design stuff that matters and is tricky in product development is the last 10%. It’s not the sexy coming up with ideas part, it’s the making the compromises part. Most agencies aren’t structured for that–the way they charge, the way the teams are organized, and the way the designers are not in the trenches with the engineers and the decision makers all the way until shipping. You can hire an outside team and they can design something awesome, but quite often you can’t actually build what they’ve designed. So you need to hire designers that can actually help ship a great product. And usually that requires being in-house nowadays.

It’s a pretty awesome time. With technology, we really can invent the future. There’s so many opportunities now. A startup like Storehouse would never have been able to do this 5 years ago. If Amazon Web Services didn’t exist, if the App Store didn’t exist, and if the iPad and iPhone didn’t exist, there is no Storehouse. Things change quickly. Imagine what it’s gonna be like in 5 years from now. All this stuff that we’re building and employing a company of 15 people based on are things that literally didn’t exist a few years ago. That’s the pace at which things move now and it’s accelerating every year.