Mona Patel is an entrepreneur and bestselling author who has been designing better human-centered interactions for the past 20 years. Beginning her career with organizations like NASA, BMW and Microsoft, she has helped some of the world’s largest brands understand what customers need and design systems to meet those needs. Mona’s UX agency, Motivate Design, was started in 2009 and has been featured on the Inc. 5000 list twice. Based in New York City, Motivate (an MWBE certified company) supports companies like First Republic Bank, BlackRock, Jet.com, Tumblr, Coca-Cola, Chick-Fil-A, and PayPal with U/UX research, design, strategy, workshops, and staffing services.
Mona is a sought-after speaker and leads design-thinking talks, workshops and interactive sessions for companies around the world. She also dedicates time grooming our next generation of design thinkers by running YOUTHx, a design camp for kids, writing a children’s book about an elephant that redesigns a swing, teaching at Parsons The New School. and lecturing at Columbia University and General Assembly.
Tell me about your early career.
I have a background in engineering and psychology, so I worked in the field of understanding who people are and what they do, and why that matters in the design of products. I got to work on redesigning medical devices, control rooms for space shuttles, and of course, software and (the first) websites. I grew into account management and leadership, and evolved into managing P&L and leading teams in the same space, and then started Motivate Design in 2009 as almost a dare to myself to find out what I was made of.
How did the concept for Motivate come about?
I was the first employee and I had clients, but no business plan! The company grew out of having too much work, and me wanting to work on all the cool projects we were getting but not having enough time. So, I read a few books, got a few smart people to give me advice, and started designing a company that would work for the newer version of UX consulting that was emerging – companies wanted to bring UX in-house, so we spun up a staffing arm and training to accommodate for their ask.
Chapter one of my book has all the details, but basically by accident! I just wanted to invent new ways of understanding what customers really wanted.
How was the first year in business?
Insanity. I was pregnant, we had two clients, and both kept needing more and more work, but wouldn’t give us a retainer. They basically wanted to call us when they felt like it and we had to have the staff ready to work on their new project within a few days. It was tough, but we found a way to make it work and reworked what we do and how we do it.
What was your marketing strategy?
Do great work and clients will call you and refer others to you.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
I believe that the YoY growth for year one was around 300%, and the second year was around 400%. Obviously, that’s not easy to sustain, but when you start with one person, it’s really only adding a few people each year.
How do you define success?
Setting a goal and achieving it.
What is the key to success?
Setting the right goal, and then having a strong balance of creativity and discipline to achieve it.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
I’m never right and winning. 🙂 I can be right in a moment, but that means someone else feels like they are wrong, and that’s not helpful, nor is it good leadership.
Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
When people quit. Each one of those days is tough. I take it better now, but I have to breathe deeply a lot those days.
When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
I have to remind myself that I believe in myself, and if I don’t have the answer, I have enough karma points to call someone who does and they will help me. That reminds me that I’m not alone, and I’m not a quitter.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
The way you react to change makes or breaks you. Pay attention to that, and try not to react. Instead, act without all those cloudy emotions and focus on the result you want.
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This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.
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