Distilling Product Knowledge

Tarik is the Founder and Creative Principle of Kale & Flax, a human-centered design agency in Louisville. A Chicago office is underway, as well.

Kale & Flax creates and changes culture through meaningful design, empathy, data and digital strategy — a truly human-centered approach to solving today’s problems and launching today’s new ideas. Oh, and they only work 4 days a week.


Intro

Tell us a little about yourself!

I got into design through music. I was 18 working on a production label with the homies and had a moment like “who is going to design all of our hundreds of artists’ album covers?” So I rushed to the store to buy some crummy design software. By the time I attended university, I was studying advertising design as my career path.

The other half of me cares a lot about family, political campaign strategies (I’m a nerd for candidacy seasons), and how global culture collides. These things make up a majority of who I am and how I see the world. I think I’m one of like two Muslim business owners active in Louisville’s scene, and I work remote as often as I can.

How would you describe your role within your company's product organization?

I feel it’s my job mostly to set the pace for the day, for the week and for the culture. I’m not big on becoming the world’s best leader. I don’t have an active interest in “managing people,” but I do have a big interest in facilitating a space and opportunity for people to pursue what’s inside of them. Some days I feel like Kale & Flax is a co-working space, and we just happen to all have the same clients and projects.

On the client side, I’m knee-deep in growth strategy and design solutions, but I prefer that my Head of Design and creative team take on the majority of the task. I’m not interested in standing over people’s shoulders, but of course, sometimes it’s helpful, and in some project cases, it’s necessary to put my grey hairs to use.

What are you working on right now that’s exciting to you?

We just helped Access Ventures roll out their Render Capital announcement, a $15 million investment fund for founders, often times underrepresented, in the Louisville and Southern Indiana region. Projects like that get me excited, and I’m looking forward to phase two.

Secondly, we’ve got a coffee project in Louisville we’re hoping to unveil early springtime, and a pretty big social impact project with two incredible partners in March also. I’m a big believer that Louisville can grow and stretch beyond itself, and so our team uses the tools and resources we have now to help contribute when we can.

What is the most important part of your day?

I’m an early bird — so that 7 to 9 a.m. window of time, being the first customer in the coffee shop I so choose for the day, is my sanctuary. For others, it’s the gym or sleeping in that they need, for me it’s the emptiness of the coffee shop before the roar of commuters comes piling in.

But yeah, 7 to 9 a.m. are my genius/productive hours. Alas, i’m no genius no matter the time though.

What drains you at work?

Lack of enthusiasm. I believe you can literally hate an idea, tear apart a project, disagree to the tenth degree, and the work and the energy continues. Tension can be a really good thing for solving ideas. But a major, major drag for me, is a client who doesn’t even care about their project, or having a team member (in a past life) who just dials-it-in each day. I’m like, there’s tons of jobs where you can do that. Luckily, at Kale & Flax, our seats are only saved for folks who care a lot (although, we all have our tough days, and we take mental health pretty serious around this place, but that’s a different issue).

Tension can be a really good thing for solving ideas.


Kale&Flax homepage

Product Leadership

Do you have a daily routine to stay organized or perform better at your job?

Challenges or creative problem solving is best served starting around 7 a.m., then I am usually in meetings from 10 a.m. until about 2 p.m. From there, I hit emails, planning, timelines, admin work and project setups hard until around after 5 p.m. When the weather is nice, I try to take a good walk each day, and I’m a serial sit-in-the-bathroom-and-catch-up-on-Twitter officemate. Sometimes I just need a small, quiet room to unplug from the world, and the bathroom happens to be comfy.

How do you go about gathering customer feedback?

Every time we sign on a new client or project, we let them know our two rules — first, we all have to leave our egos at the door. Everybody. Our work, collectively, is about making an impact or solving a problem.

Because of the first rule, we have the second rule, and that is, that we require of our clients their brutal honesty and openness. We let them know we may ask questions of their thinking or challenge their beliefs on something, but it’s absolutely necessary to the outcomes that if you hate something, raise your hand with a smile and say “Hey, I hate this.” By giving that freedom, we get a lot less passive “I hated this the whole time” and a lot more “Hey, what if we did this? Tried this? Adjusted this?” It makes client relationships a lot stronger for the long haul.

When it comes to testing user feedback (not-client), we often work our way through design thinking sessions, design sprints, heatmaps and user conversations when we can pull them out.

How do you make user feedback actionable?

I feel like there’s a ton of best practices answers out there. One cool thing we really enjoyed doing on a client project was taking a Tweet that was giving feedback on a project, and including it in the email newsletter that was sent out about the new feature. Instead of saying, “Hey, we listened to your feedback,” which feels like a gimmick, we literally took the tweet as a way to show the Tweeter/user love, as well as, make our feature update communicate a bit more genuinely.


Advice

What advice would you have for someone who is hoping to grow in their product-focused role?

I think you’ve got to fall a bit in love with the whole thing — not just the product design and not just the development of it. But the economics of it, the social media connection to it, the user feedback and so on.

Like most creatives, I have shiny-object syndrome occasionally, and in my earlier days it was really hard for me to see a product through to iteration two or three. I was so interested in designing the next app or solution as a whole, from the ground floor. As I’ve gotten older, I understand the nuance, beauty, accountability and opportunity in it bit by bit — learning, growing, and pushing alongside a product and its user base.

What’s a lesson that you learned the hard way, but would never take back?

Sacrificing my values and principals out of fear of a teammate or partner’s tantrums.

I’m a very let’s-get-shit-done-and-move-onto-the-next-problem kind of personality — it’s good and I’m sure not great some times. Letting someone walk all over me, my team, or a project out of fear of their irrational thinking or tirades is just not something I’ll accept anymore. In my ad agency days, it was a norm of clients — people loved the drama at work, but, where I’m at today, I’m trying to help change a tiny corner of the world with a tiny crew of big minds. There’s no time for that negative stuff ala “that’ll be a no from me, dawg.” That’s a terrible American Idol quote, by the way.

The most powerful lesson in my professional career is that by avoiding danger at all costs, you actually put yourself, in a way, in the midst of the most danger.

What is one piece of advice that had a big impact on your life?

A favorite I like to pass onto folks is a great Don Draper line from MadMen, “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” The most powerful lesson in my professional career is that by avoiding danger at all costs, you actually put yourself, in a way, in the midst of the most danger. I think a big fear of mine is living in fear, and I try to fight that mental model each day.

On a more young-Tarik level, as Muslims we’re reminded to ‘tie our camel.’ You can take risks, walk the desert, climb the highest mountain, dive deep into the sea, but always, always tie your camel — meaning, don’t lose “the vehicle/medium” that allows you to take risks or provide for your family at night. Backup your data, monitor your bank statements, call and checkup on your friends, buy protective gear for your cameras, wear a seatbelt, get checkups at the doctor, and so on.


Rapid-Fire Questions

If you could wave a magic wand and fix something about one of your favorite products, what would it be?

Slack should copy WhatsApp’s reply function. This whole Thread thing is nonsense. Separately, WhatsApp is bonkers for their, “Tarik has deleted a message” when you delete a typo or share something with the wrong person. It’s like “dang dude, why you gotta put me on blast? They hadn’t even checked their messages yet.”

What is one product or company being built in in your region that you think more people should know about (other than your own)?

Toggle Health, founded by Jake Miller, is one. Stephen and Logan’s Forecastr is definitely going to make waves, and we’ve told them we want to be an early-bird customer. Some really cool startups and companies just came out of the Wild Accelerator as well.

What is a book, podcast, or website that you think more people should know about?

From Good to Great” is a fantastic book, but I’m not like a website loyalist. I’m very into seeing what’s trending each day, whether in design or politics, and then finding my way through the rabbit hole. Still undecided on whether or not I like Design Twitter or VC Twitter yet. #undecided.

What would you do with your time if money was no issue?

Continually short term live. I know people always say they’d travel, and often times they mean like hop from beach to beach, or tourism area to area, but I really enjoy building rapport and connection with real individuals in real cities over time. It’s awesome to have like 5, 10, 20 close friends in every country or city you’ve stepped foot in. There’s so much to learn from every day people who have a different colored lens in this life. So, yeah, I’d work on a few projects in cool, small cities with “new friends” for eternity if I could.


Wrap-up

Is there something that you want to plug?

Overall, I’d say keep an eye on Kale & Flax in 2020. We’ve been playing a more quiet role the last three-ish years, but this year, we might just let our voices and our investments be heard a little louder.

How can our readers keep up with you?

I’m not much of a social media-ite these days, but @searchingfortarik on IG is one place to keep an eye on what I’m personally up to, with @kaleandflax_ curated by Krista and our team being a pretty cool follow as well.

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