Chicago Camps

Jason Kunesh (Video) — Prototypes, Process & Play 2015

Jason Kunesh is a local Chicago treasure—he’s worked with all kinds of great companies and for a president of the United States of America and now works for a purpose-driven start-up where he’s got a team of great folks (with no design department) who are trying to change the world, a little nudge at a time.

We hope you enjoy Jason’s presentation, “How to be a Designer CEO without Being a Jerk” and don’t forget to get your tickets for Prototypes, Process & Play on August 11th and 12th!

Jason Kunesh

CEO, Public Good Software

Jason Kunesh is the CEO of Public Good Software, a social enterprise software startup in Chicago. Previously, he was Director of User Experience & Product at Obama for America, a founder of Fuzzy Math, on the founding team of ThePoint (which grew up to be Groupon), an early designer at Orbitz, an adjunct faculty member at DePaul University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and a bouncer at the Green Mill.

Jason has spoken at companies including Google, Intuit, and Microsoft and at conferences including UX Week, BAYCHI, Web Visions and more. His work has been featured in the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly, BusinessWeek, TIME, and others.

For more, keep up with Jason at or on Twitter as @jdkunesh.

How to be a Designer CEO at a Startup without Being a Jerk

As designers we’re told to practice empathy, learning our users’ habits, unspoken needs, and desires. We use that knowledge to inform the design of a product intended to delight people. As CEOs, the skills we celebrate are different. Ford, Jobs, Elon Musk and more were known as ego-driven steamrollers who pushed people to the brink all the time.

Here’s what I’ve learned from my time at Public Good about running a business, owning product, and empowering our team to do great work. All without being an a-hole. Most of the time.

Presentation Transcript


Jason Kunesh:

Thanks to Russ and thanks to Shay and thanks to all the volunteers who worked their butts off to put this on. It’s a ton of work that we don’t see, but we get to participate in and get the experience of. Thank you for all of your attention. Hopefully I’ll make this something that is worthwhile for you.

Russ and I chatted about this. I realized this may not be that valuable to you because you may not want to be a CEO or you may not be a jerk. I may be limiting my audience. You might be nice, normal people who deal with jerks. So I thought let’s talk about something else. The something else is let’s talk about happy business. What does that mean? In our business our theory of change is people are happy when they connect to communities and do something good for other people. It’s a basic fact and psychologically proven. So there’s that.

For us what that means is delighting your community and ignoring the trolls and always displaying empathy as you work in the greater community. We’ll get into that in a little bit.

I’m Jason Kunesh. Actually that’s not me. It’s a racon, but that’s how you pronounce my name coon‑ish. I was lucky enough to be chosen to be on the Obama For America team and learned a lot about sort of what technology can do to help people connect online and offline communities, bringing people together. So before that I was a bouncer. It’s a whole other story.

So at public good I’m the CEO. And basically I’m the CEO not because I’m the smartest person. Actually I have had it proven empirically time and time again that I’m not the smartest person in the room at public good. But the reason I became the CEO is it’s essentially a design problem. A lot of the work that is done in the nonprofit space and a lot of the work that people do when they get in touch with nonprofits, the technology is pretty dated and old. The ideas are simple. How do you get people to give money, give time, get their attention. What’s different is it’s really the experience of it. How do you make it easy for people to do that? How do you make it meaningful? How do you communicate that meaning?

The first thing that we designed was the business itself. We’re what’s called a for‑purpose startup. On the one hand we’re one part hippee, and one part capitalist. Imagine Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump having a love child.


Don’t imagine that. That would be terrible. What would their hair be like? We’re an Illinois benefit corporation. We take investment like all the folks making apps who deliver pizza or whatever they do. We have a social mission built into our articles of incorporation. If there is an opportunity that we think serves a mission, that’s great. If there’s something that we do that doesn’t serve a mission and doesn’t help out non‑profits in some way, we don’t do that work. That has had an impact in everything that we do. From the people we hire, to the way we go about our work, to the way we work with our partners. We don’t really have customers, we have partners, because we’re working with these organizations. We can only win when they win and if they lose, really we all lose. That is what got us started doing this.

So okay, let’s talk about like some happy business or being a jerk. I don’t even know anymore. Slide six. We lost it. Okay. You build a product.

This is where it hopefully gets useful for you. You work on something, it’s a good, it’s a service, whatever it is. You’re making lunches for people. You make a website. You take people on sky diving lessons. Whatever that is, there’s some kind of gift that is the result of your work, right? And that stuff typically comes together through a process. And we always hear like the process is the product, you can’t really unlink them. And it’s true. There’s a whole thing about Christopher Alexander. Does anybody know this? Geeks. Represent.

One of the things that he talks about is things have a quality without a name. You can simply feel it. Jim Mitis talks about this. If you can’t simplify them, hide the complexity. If you can’t do that, you need to embody the quality. You can feel it in the weight of something you pick up, versus something else. Anyway, that’s a whole other topic.

Anyway, that’s the point of that. And ultimately the company that you have that really creates that product and creates that process, it’s almost like an API for the way that you deal with the world. It’s a thing that protects all the people who are participating in that process to make that thing. It protects them from legal issues, it’s a way that they get paychecks. It’s a way that they get whatever, health insurance or spa days or whatever your company provides. We don’t provide spa days.

But it’s basically that kind of organization. Right? And then the kind of next level to it is community. Reaching out. This is everybody who use your product, the people who partner with you, this is everybody from your competitors to the people in the office down the street. And the point is that all these different things kind of combine to create impact. Now your impact can be really basic. Hey, I run a lemonade stand and I make tasty lemonade, and my impact is I make some money off doing that and I have reduced people’s thirst. Pretty straightforward.

But there’s other more complex forms of that, too. You can actually do things like in our case we have to submit what’s called a social impact report. We have to describe the impact on the organizations that we work with. It can be really complex like that, or again it can be pretty simple. But in some way, shape, or form, all those things really end up being your brand. Right? All those things contribute to your brand. The way in which you end up communicating whether it’s with the product that you’re building, people using that stuff, whether it’s your company, somebody seeing something on your website, responding to your social media feed, whatever else, the process that you use to create that stuff, you feel it. Your community is going to feel it. They’re going to feel it in the product. They’re going to know how this stuff is made.

And ultimately that impact itself. What is it that you’re really about? You, the company, the product, what is the change you’re trying to make it? It all comes together into one thing. That’s the brand. And the brand realistically only exists in the mind of the beholder. But it’s composed of all those deferent things. What is your impression of you.

So I guess on the one hand what you get is you can measure all this stuff through metrics. You can sit there and say okay, how many daily active users, weekly active users, blah, blah, blah. How fast are we shipping something, how fast are we making money, what is the customer lifetime value, blah, blah, blah.

The other stuff is a little more subtle. How is your company doing? It’s based on your values. The community, it’s going to be based around your culture. Look at the difficulties Redditt has had recently. Your community ends up being your product. That’s true with Facebook and other social networks.

And you have to show empathy and relate with your brand and people and connect up.

Where the hell is all of this going? This is about design. Where is the design in this? We don’t really actually have a design department. That’s one of the benefits of being the CEO. You can create department names, which is hilarious. But we didn’t create a design one. We have researchers and designers, and we have people who think about product. But what we have instead are people who are experts at something and they all have some kind of touchpoint with the customer, whether it’s selling a product, helping somebody use it, dealing with community support requests, or having fun at one of their happy hours. We’re all responsible for this general reaction with the community and reflecting this stuff back. So the idea is pretty typically at public good, you’re an expert at something awesome. I don’t even know if we use databases, but I wouldn’t go and touch one if I knew what they were. But what goes in there and how people use it, I’ve got really strong opinions on that stuff. A lot of the times what we try to do is create space for people to relate to each other and create a sense of shared ownership. How do we do that?

I’m trying to rush along. I think is about a 30‑minute talk in a 15‑minute body. The first thing for us is to really give agency. It’s more than just saying “What would you do?” Even though I do that a lot to people and it annoys them terribly. I’m making a decision. Blah or blah. What would you do? Oftentimes they know. You know when you ask somebody. But we don’t feel comfortable with what the result of that would be. So the way we get around that is to make sure that the stuff that we do is actually measurable.

So you make a choice, but when you make that choice, talk about that choice in terms of what you’re actually measuring. What do you think is going to happen if you do this? And then when you talk about that, make sure it’s actually meaningful. Nothing is worse than knowing you’re the fastest person in the race pointed in the wrong direction. You’re going absolutely nowhere really fast. So make sure that the work that you’re doing, you can measure it, but it also kind of lines up to that bigger set of goals.

And then again because we’re all good at one or two things, but not a lot of all the other stuff, and like at public good we’ve got people from non‑profits. We’ve got tech people. We’ve got kind of an eclectic bunch. One of our things is be helpful. If someone is designing a feature that goes into a workflow that is going to be used by somebody at a non‑profit. Why don’t we have you talk to Josh, the guy who has done it for a dozen years and done it. The initial shaping process, those two people will help each other. They’ll get annoyed at each other to some degree. They’ll start to say things like you can’t have that because of blah, blah, blah. There’s that initial tension and they talk it through. And Steve from this morning did a good job of talking about finding that judo or akito moment. Instead of saying no, no, no, how can we work together on these things. That’s something I hope I can bring back to public good.

The other thing we emphasize is being transparent. You can’t have people figure out what meaningful and measurable work is unless you tell them where you’re going.

The other thing is being democratic. This sounds super hippyish, but we are. This whole thing was a sham. Be a jerk. That’s one thing you’re going to take away. We did a happy hour recently. It was great. But everybody wanted to talk about what was on the play list, what kind of food we were getting, what’s the right microbrew. Dudes. Come on. Let’s pick. Having beer. There’s a great moment where a designer, a guy named Jeff. My birthday party. We would have sausage, pizza, coke. What about Diet Coke? Too many choices. Sometimes you have to make that choice. You make that choice, stick with it, and if it doesn’t work, you just iterate.

The last few pieces here, be accountable. If you’re going to give that much agency to people, people need to be held accountable. Not in a traditional boss relationship. But if you’re going to put you stuff out there and say this is the stuff I’m working on, and you can talk with the people in general, then somebody on that team is going to say hey Kelly, I thought last week you were going to do X, Y, Z. That never happened. Why not? It’s not a gotcha. But it’s a moment for you to be helpful. It’s important. It didn’t work out the way we thought it would or didn’t get done. What can we do to get it back on track? Finally just encourage dissent. You need people to speak up. If I’m going a good job, I’m hiring people who are smarter than me. Listen to them. Right? And kind of figure it out. And if you’re one of those people that are smarter than your boss, then I don’t know. Tell them you’re a jerk and they need to listen to you. Don’t do that. And then finally just be happy. I think one of the things that we’ve really tried to emphasize is we have a lot of work to do. And oftentimes people get excited about a particular piece of work. I really want to work on this. This is really, like for some reason I’m really into it. I had a guy tell me two days ago I really want to work on Geo-targeting. Well, we were going to do that in October. But this guy is super jazzed up on it. I can either say no, wait until October. Keep that enthusiasm in a bottle or yeah, let’s do that. Let’s find a way to make that work. Oftentimes what you find is people who are motivated tend to do a lot better work. They actually care. The more you can align that passion with what they need to work on, the better off you are. And sometimes again having that flexibility to do it, it’s tough, but that’s why the company kind of performs a little bit of a dance as part of its API. Hey, we said we were going to get you this feature. Maybe it’s going to take another week. We’re going do this other stuff. It will be amazing. Trust us.

So that’s all I got. Thank you. And questions, whatever.


Russ Unger:

One question. We’ll give you one question. Otherwise we’ll give them a ten‑minute break before Andi starts. We’ll still give them that.

Jason Kunesh:

I’m growing back the mustache. That can be the question and then we’re done.

Russ Unger:

Thank you. Ten minute break before Andrea starts. And we will see you back shortly. Thank you, sir.


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