21 Career Questions with Michael Schaeffer - Creative Guru + Surf Right Co-Founder
Michael is a good friend and former colleague who has always inspired + challenged me. After 20+ years as a product designer, creative director and design executive with major brands like PUMA and Reebok, he recently changed the road he was on to become an entrepreneur, co-founding The Right Collective (with friend + former colleague, Marcus Wilson), where he is able to merge his love for creating and building brands and their stories with his passion for sports and athletics. Their first brand is Surf Right - a northeast-inspired surf brand.
1. What would the headline of your biography be?
"The Austrian That Didn't Know How To Yodel And Emigrated To Trade Sauerkraut For Lobster"
2. What is your mission / goal in life?
Stay foolish for as long as I can, don't grow up. Ever.
(Not sure my wife is too happy about that.)
3. What do you love to do?
I love my "job" as a designer but more than anything I have always had a really deep connection to the outdoors and action sports. Psyched to be able to bring these 2 passions together with what I am doing now. Building our own brand "Surf Right" with my business partner Marcus and helping others do the same.
4. What were your “aha” moments - when you realized you were exceptional at something?
I don't think I am exceptional at anything simply because I am passionate about too many things. Would be a waste to just focus on one skill, there are so many exciting things to tackle and try.
5. What keeps you up at night?
My 3 boys and the drive to create stuff.
Otherwise I sleep pretty well.
6. What historical / business figure do you most identify with?
I don't really look at others as an inspiration but one person does stand out: Jake Burton.
Being Austrian my parents put me on skis when I was 2 years old but I was one of the first lunatics back home to try snowboarding in my teens. Burton boards were not sold in Europe then so we made our own snowboards out of sheet laminated plywood and windsurfing foot straps. None of the resorts would let us up on the lifts so my mom had to drive us to the top of a mountain.
Unbelievable how much this one idea changed the nature of snow sports and for how long Burton has been able to stay on top. And he created a lifestyle for himself that allowed him to merge his passion for the mountains with building an amazing business.
7. What is the trait you most want to improve in yourself?
8. What are your unique talents?
I have 2 Masters degrees, one in Mechanical Engineering and the other one in Product Design. Kind of like having a daily internal conversation or argument between your left half of the brain and the right one.
I was definitely struggling with this at the beginning of my design career, the analytical voice would often "win" over the urge to explore and challenge. Now I see this ability to go at problems from a "left" and "right" angle as a necessity and specifically look for that in individuals that we are considering for our team.
The best designers I worked with over the years were also the ones that asked the most questions. They are not stylists, they are restless design thinkers that challenge everything, tear things and ideas to pieces and rebuild them in innovative and unexpected ways.
9. What is your greatest extravagance?
I don't really have one big one….but our garage is full of extreme sports toys and all of them put together probably amount to being a bit extravagant.
But I use them all. Really.
And I'm a Starbucks snob. Either great marketing or their coffee really does taste better. Not sure.
10. Which brands / businesses do you admire the most?
The ones that start with a sharp point and a unique message and are able to stay true to themselves and consistent while scaling. It's easy to get opportunistic and distracted, it's hard to evolve and grow up gracefully with a strong point of view.
11. Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
12. What is your greatest career regret?
Not starting something myself sooner. The past year as an entrepreneur has been the most fulfilling as well as scary experience of my professional life so far. I like to be scared, makes me feel alive.
13. When or where were you happiest in life?
The past couple of years, it's all been coming together. Family, kids, great friends and finally starting my own thing with a terrific friend and business partner.
14. Which talent would you most like to have?
All skills needed to build a custom motorcycle from the ground up. I dabble in it but lots to learn there.
15. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
My commitment to becoming a designer.
After graduating from engineering school in Austria and doing my thesis at BMW, it was tempting to follow that path and work in that industry as an engineer. Then, a unique opportunity to live in Japan popped up and those 2 years in Tokyo were really forming for me. I had a blast there, immersed myself in Japanese culture, studied Japanese and worked at a couple of companies as a designer.
That was kind of a wake up call for me and the trigger to make this design thing happen for real. Never looked back after that and I absolutely love what I do.
16. What is your most treasured business memento?
A picture of "The Diner" in Dedham where Marcus and I shook hands to become business partners last year. That's where it all began and their pancakes are mean.
17. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
18. Do you care about money?
Yes. All currencies.
19. What is your defining characteristic?
20. Who are your favorite business writers / bloggers / people?
Seth Godin. Read his blog every morning. Awesome (there…said it again).
21. Who is your hero in real life?
My wife Amy for taking a chance on me even though she thought I was a little bit too "European" when we met in grad school. I guess the Austrian accent and old world charm worked.