Jim Spadaccini – Founder & CEO, Ideum

Having founded the company in 1999, Jim is the creative director and CEO of Ideum, a multi-touch products and digital interactive company based in Corrales, New Mexico. He helps direct Ideum’s commercial hardware and software initiatives and provides creative direction for custom software and installation projects.

Jim was the principal investigator for the National Science Foundation (NSF)-sponsored Open Exhibits software and community initiative and a co-PI for the Creating Museum Media for Everyone (CMME) project. In addition, he was co-chair of the NSF-funded Human Computer Interaction in Informal Science Education (HCI+ISE) conference. Additionally, Jim was a principal investigator on the NASA-funded Space Weather Mobile project and co-PI on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)-sponsored project, Hurricanes and Climate Change.

In addition to his responsibilities at Ideum, Jim is active in the community and volunteers as a board member for the Friends of Chaco and the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. Before founding Ideum, Jim was the director of Interactive Media at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, California. While at the Exploratorium, his department was responsible for developing educational web resources and media exhibits for the museum floor. For his work at the Exploratorium, Jim received a Computerworld “Smithsonian Award,” an Association of Science and Technology Centers “Award for Innovation,” and three consecutive Webby Awards for “Best Science Site.”

Jim taught courses on design and technology at San Francisco State University’s (SFSU) Multimedia Studies program for seven years starting in the mid-90s, and more recently, taught Technology-Enhanced Communication for the Cultural Heritage (TEC-CH) program at the University of Lugano, Switzerland. For more than a decade, he has taught courses on digital media and museums for the Cultural Resource Management program at University of Victoria, British Columbia. Along with his work in informal education, Jim has consulted with Apple and Adobe, and has developed promotional and instructional materials for a number of professional software authoring tools.

1. How do you define success?
I believe a lot of people think of success as something you just acquire or earn over time, and there you are, you’ve arrived! I like to think about being successful at different stages in life, and in our company’s development. I never thought of myself or our company as unsuccessful when there were only a few of us and we were struggling to make ends meet. I thought of us being successful for who we were and what we were at that stage of development.

Success is being able to work on interesting projects or develop interesting products. Success is getting to work with innovative people and partners on great projects. We’ve never really focused on the money, except as a way to do more, to take on bigger and better projects, and to develop new and more exciting products. For us, that has been really important. It has allowed us to grow the company with zero venture capital and debt. Because we don’t have to spend a lot of time or energy with funders, we can focus on the work, the creative process, and on improving our staff and workflow.

2. What is the key to success?
I think a lot of it is hard work and persistence. That is certainly the driving force when you find yourself in a situation when you don’t have a lot of collaborators. For our company, I think finding the right people to work with has been absolutely essential. I’ve been lucky enough to find people who can do things I can’t, and who can bring ideas that I don’t have. I can’t stress that part enough. It is not really about the individual. It is about having a great and diverse team in place. That and hard work makes everything possible.

3. Did you always know you would be successful?
Our company is now getting attention because we are growing and involved in very interesting, cutting-edge technology. While I am proud of what we’ve accomplished and where we are, I think. Unfortunately, our society defines success too narrowly. It is not always about money and the latest startups or new technology.

I have always thought of myself as successful. When I was a poorly paid teacher in San Francisco, California during the early 90s, I thought I was successful at that job. I think success is something you bring with you when you care about the work, and when you want to make a difference and create something meaningful. In that sense, I always knew I would be successful, because I worked hard at a job that was important.

4. When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
You really don’t have a choice. You always move forward. I don’t want that to sound negative, as some people feel that they are trapped in particular situations. I don’t view it that way. When I face adversity, I tend to work harder, try to work more closely with those around me, and try to work with others to constructively solve whatever problems have arisen.

A huge benefit of adversity is that, usually, there are more than a few lessons to be learned in these types of situations. Our products, projects, and processes have all benefited from what we learned over the years from a variety of unforeseen incidents or (unfortunately) self-inflicted mistakes and blunders. Knowing that can also be comforting. You feel like you are getting something positive out of a bad situation. It is also a way to bring closure and close off the negative feelings associated with a bad situation.

5. What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
It is hard to choose one. Persistence and making sure you are always thinking ahead are probably the two greatest lessons I’ve learned.

Persistence is the continuum. It helps you day to day, but also means that you’ll benefit in the future from sticking with things. Our company benefits from relationships and contacts that we made in the early 2000s. We have gained experience through projects, big and small, over more than 15 years. The time spent comes back to you and it can help you find new projects, develop new products, and innovate.

Thinking ahead and planning for multiple futures is something I do every day in some way or another. Things won’t ever work out exactly as you plan, so that’s why I focus on “multiple” futures. In addition, it is not all nuts and bolts kind of thinking. It is not all about staff, space, products, and money. It is also about being the company for which you want to work. What type of work are you interested in pursuing? Who are you going to collaborate with? What new technologies or design challenges are we going to take on? Can we do more for the local community? All of this forward-thinking prepares you for what’s next. It has allowed us to grow organically and take advantage of the opportunities that have presented themselves.

6. What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I like to take on activities that are far removed from work. I love spending time with my family. Also, I enjoy gardening and have a vineyard with 135 vines. I’m just starting to make wine. I like to ride my bike and exercise. I think it is important to have some balance. It is easy to get wrapped up in work because I find it so interesting.

7. What makes a great leader?
I think great leaders help assemble great teams, find great talent, and inspire people. I also think a great leader provides the tools, the environment, and the collaborators for others to be successful.

8. What advice would you give to college students about entering the workforce?
The best advice I have ever heard is to find something you are passionate about. Yes, it is a cliché, but it is true (which is also a cliché at this point). However, there are a lot of people who have jobs they don’t like. They do their work just for the money, and that doesn’t lead to long-term happiness. If you find something you love and work at it, if you are good at it, chances are that the money will follow.

The other bit of advice I would give is, when you go to an interview, don’t think about it as a one-way kind of process. Ask the employer questions. Learn about the work environment. Make sure it is a place where you want to work and a place that would allow you to grow. The type of company and work environment can be as important as the job itself when you are starting out.

This interview is an excerpt from Never Give Up by Jason Navallo.