The Intersection of Strategy, Physical and Digital with Carl Emil S. Bregnhøi
This episode features Carl Emil S. Bregnhøi, a Copenhagen-based digital strategist, early seed investor, and entrepreneur. We cover topics such as a strategic approach to design and technology, the importance of communication, working on the intersection of physical and digital, his current struggles, the value of side projects, and much more.
Carl Emil S. Bregnhøi comes with a decade’s experience as a senior digital strategist, advising at the CEO-level for >€1 billion companies within eCommerce, luxury, fashion, art, and technology.
"Be upfront if things are going off the track. The moment the client is in the loop, they feel safe. And communication is here to make people around you feel safe. The moment they are insecure, that’s where the problems start."
He’s a founding partner at STRØM, a digital design agency in Copenhagen, co-founder of Coffeeship, and member of the board at natural wine company Rødder & Vin.
- Introduction [00:00]
- Episode Introduction [00:52]
- What Is a Strategic Approach to Design and Technology? [02:35]
- Advice to Young Professionals Who Are Just Starting Out [09:56]
- Strategic Approach to Projects at the Intersection of Physical and Digital [15:23]
- Short Episode Break – Support the Podcast [23:44]
- Carl Emil’s Current Struggles [24:35]
- The Value Of Side Projects [28:10]
- Advice for Being a Better Creative Professional [40:11]
- Episode Outro [44:13]
Carl Emil: “Suddenly, we are all lying on the floor, because there is rapid gunfire over our heads. When somebody takes hold of my shoulder, I turn around, and I see the bartender, and he’s finished my caipirinha.“
This is the Creative Voyage podcast, a long form interview show with the mission of helping creative professionals to level up. I’m your host, Mario Depicolzuane. I’m a creative professional myself, active in the fields of graphic design, art direction, and creative consulting, working with companies such as Kinfolk, MENU, and Sonos.
Through Season One of this podcast, I present in-depth interviews with some of the world’s most inspiring creative professionals, revealing the stories that shaped their lives and careers, plus actionable strategies to help take your mindset and skills to the next level. I invite you to join me on this journey.
Mario: In this episode, I talk to a digital strategist, early seed investor and entrepreneur.
Carl Emil: My name is Carl Emil Schneider Bregnhøi and I’m a brand strategist and serial entrepreneur, early-stage seed investor and natural wine importer and coffee roaster and a bunch of other stuff, film producer. I work with brands to create stories and products in the cross-section of technology and liberal arts at the digital agency Strøm. I’m co-founder of Danish Specialty Roastery Coffee Ship. I’m co-founder of Brazil NGO, Project Rocinha and board member of natural wine import company Rødder & Vin.
Carl Emil: Basically, I focus on brand strategy within the fields of fashion, art, luxury goods, lifestyle and technology.
Mario: Carl Emil is my good friend, with whom I first got connected through work while I was employed at Kinfolk. After that first introduction, over the next couple of months, we met on some events, started hanging out and working together on some projects. From the very beginning of our friendship, I was perplexed with Carl Emil and what he was actually doing. He was just 25 and was active in all these different businesses and initiatives. When I decided to start my podcast, I figured I should start in a safe place with a friend, so I jumped on the opportunity to ask Carl Emil to be my guinea pig, which also gave me a chance to clarify what my friend was actually doing.
Mario: On one Sunday afternoon, at his home in Copenhagen, over a glass or two of natural wine, I set up my Zoom H5 recorder for the very first time and began with this journey I’m currently on. In this episode, we’re going to listen to the highlights of that conversation, which happened in October of 2017. We cover topics such as a strategic approach to design and technology, working on the intersection of physical and digital, the value of side projects and much more.
Carl Emil started working part-time when he was just 12 years old. He was interning with E Types, currently one of the most prominent Danish creative agencies. He was still in primary school, so every afternoon he would be at the agency until he had to join his family for dinner. At E Types, he was introduced to the brew, and started with making coffee, but eventually began working on various digital assets, such as short films and simple websites. That was during the very early stage of the digital field. At similar time, he was also engaged with the radical left-wing movements in Copenhagen, identifying himself as an anarchist. A surreal instance happened during one of the riots he participated in. At the time, E Types, the agency he worked for, made new visual identity for the police. On those barricades, during one of the riots, the only thing Carl Emil could think about was the bad kerning he noticed on one of the stickers on the police vehicle, something that at E Types they had been fretting about while working on it.
It was indeed a dynamic and perhaps contradictory period of his life, and as the movement slowly waned and he got more involved in working with the agency, Carl Emil recognized that he thrived in the creative environment, in working with deadlines and in the cross-section of artistic and commercial, and he was set on his professional path. Currently, he’s active in a variety of companies, and even his primary job and title of a digital strategist can seem puzzling. So I started my conversation with Carl Emil, asking him what he’s actually doing and how does he see his role as a creative professional.
Carl Emil: What I see my job as, and it’s a funny question, because I don’t think either my parents or my family in general have really understood what I’ve ever been doing. Sometimes I’m in doubt myself. I see my job function in my company, but also like in relationship to my clients and to people I work with, I try to understand where things are right now in technology and design and predict what’s going to happen over the next ten years. That’s a gist of what I do, because when you build solutions or you create products or experience for your customers’ clients, who are your real users, actually, there’s an understanding of building for not now but for the near few years, building up.
Carl Emil: The good thing about working in the cross-section of technology and design and creative work is basically you don’t have to be afraid of it not lasting forever, because everything you do is going to be outdated within a year, within two years. Everything you do, you’re building on top of a mountain that will always continue to grow. When you’re starting a project, you need to understand how are things going to develop, because if you’re going in one direction, and the whole industry goes in another direction, then it’s hard to build on top. You have to start from the beginning. So understanding that you’re building on top of shoulders of giants, that relationship I’m basically talking about, whatever you do now, you’re building on top of what is provided to you by Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple.
Carl Emil: Those four companies are basically what you’re building everything on top of, and that understanding, and following what are the mechanics that they strive toward, that’ll define whatever you’re doing, whether it be art direction, whether it be strategic direction, whether it be any facet in bringing a client’s story to life in a creative field. It actually all comes down to what are these four big players doing? And what are they going to do in the future? That basic understanding is very vital and something that’s changing all the time.
Carl Emil: Strøm Works as a company is of course not a future prediction company or anything like that. We’re a client creative agency, like a lot of other agencies are. I think we are lucky in the regard that we’re three years old and everybody who is involved in the company from the beginning are actually pretty young. Like I’m definitely the youngest person at the company, but the notion that we actually don’t have that backstory of how a creative agency is working has really helped us be part of a new way of understanding how you work with clients. Like when we started out, we made a manifesto, a ten point manifest, like what is a modern creative agency.
Carl Emil: Traditionally, agencies, they’ve been working out of an idea. Like take an advertising agency. They were based on placing ads in media. So they were based in buying a space in a newspaper. So that was what they did. “Okay, what can we do to make more money?” They thought, “Okay, well, we can also have the creative part of it, so we’ll also write the copy for your ads and well know where to place it and how to price it, but we also create the copy for it.” and that became the main business and the placement became the smaller business. So it all came down to the production side. We have strategy, and that’s what you’re buying from a creative agency. Strategy. And that defines the creative. And when you have the creative, that’s when the production began, because there was no need to have an insight into production, because that was like either you shoot a movie, you hire a director and you shoot an advertising film, or you hire this graphical designer, you do that sort of stuff based on the strategy and the creative work.
Carl Emil: So you have, in a funnel where you have strategy, creative, design and production. When I quit school to start at the agency, Strøm. I was kind of looking at it. “Well, what is the problem that we’re seeing right now with the transition of traditional agencies, going from a physical point to the digital standpoint?” And it was that they lacked insight of the technology in the solution that they’d created, because they were working out from a model that was strategy and creative work was key drivers, and then you hire production. So as I said to my partners when we sat down, I was like, “What can we actually do to not get in the same trap?” And the whole notion was that we can’t do everything world level from the beginning. We were four guys in a basement in [Danish 00:07:42] doing weird websites and small projects. What can we do to define us differently?
Carl Emil: And that was actually the point where we said, “Okay, if we can not make sure that we’re going to be world-class in all these four parameters, we’re going to take some of it out.” and that’s what you see a lot of companies does. They’ll have, “Okay, we’re a design agency, and then we hire production to do the design of the website or the user experience on app, whatever.” and we took another approach, saying, “No, actually, that’s the outsourceable material for us.” so we thought, “Okay, we’re going to jump and take two of the things we can do world-class, we believe.” Strategy, for one, because everything, I believe, every good idea’s distillation is strategy. Like strategy is of course key to everything. Then the production.
Carl Emil: So strategy and engineering was where we thought as a modern creative or advertising agency, or digital agency, that was where we wanted to start. And we wanted clients. We were going to be subcontractors. We were going to sell whatever we did to our clients with the understanding that we did the strategy and the engineering, and then we hired a designer. Then we hired copywriters, then we hired creative people to work with us. And it’s only like now, this slow development that we’re going and saying, “Okay, but now we’re really good at this. We’re really good at the strategy, we’re really good at the engineering. We’ve been working with world-class people to create the rest. How can we make some more money?”
Carl Emil: But basically, we’re just doing that transition now, saying, “Okay, now we can go in and begin developing our creative side, our design side as an agency.” So we worked from another angle in it, and everything is devised out from the idea that you don’t work in steps, but you work all interlinked together. So it’s because of the technology insights that my CTO has, at my company, that we can devise a strategy, because we know the ramification of what we want to achieve, and we know the impossibilities and the hindrances in the technology. So part of the strategy is always involving every aspect of these four elements, and especially engineering is such an important part. So engineering is so much part of our ground strategy, from the beginning, which has helped streamline a lot of projects for us, been able to do a lot of really interesting things for a fraction of the price because there’s been no surprises which some of the few things you see in technology development and what not is surprises and changes of scope and that sort of stuff. And it’s been a really interesting ride so far and it’s proven fairly successful I’d say.
Between working in the agency he co-founded and a myriad of other side projects, Carl Emil often collaborates with young professionals, both interns and junior staff. So I was curious to hear what advice he would give a young person entering into this kind of work.
Carl Emil: I think a key takeaway, entering an industry that is so bound and creative and technology is a broad understanding, actually, more than a specific need. Of course, if you’re a developer, you’re set. You can get a job anywhere. There are way too few of those. But if you want to work in the sector of doing creative work, in the technologic sense, it’s actually all about insights again, and I think basically I see myself as a translator. I can write a bit of code, and because I thought I was going to be a coder, I can do graphic design on a minimal basis, because I thought I was going to be a graphic designer, so you know, I use Adobe suite. I’m really proficient in them all, and I took the language. I care about the kerning of typography, I care about the spacing, I care about colors, I care about color profiles. I can have a long debate whether it’s Fogra 39 or another color profile for a certain printer in the CMYK setting.
Carl Emil: And that understanding, as long as a caring for words, it’s basically, when you work in a creative field that touches so many points. It’s about caring about all these points. It’s about caring about technology. I love to sit down and discuss with my developers whether we should use this code language or another coding language. Are we using PHP or another programming language? What are my relationships to Kotlin versus Swift? And I can have that with reasonable knowledge with my developers without even being able to write a code, because I care and I’m interested and I read up on it and listen to a lot of podcasts that touch on those viewpoints, because it interests me.
Carl Emil: But I can also have a discussion about typography or colors or photography or copywriting. Or I’ll have a discussion with a marketer about how do we do remarketing for a campaign, because it interests me. And that spider position is something I find is very valuable in the creative sphere of digital, because it’s the combination of those insights that are very specific, but we lack the understanding of the broad perspective on them. And I feel that that’s a good point to start. It’s a tough point, but it also means that you actually have to love all the aspects of it. I think working in a traditional advertising agency, you should have a love for copy and a love for design, a love for film production, these kinds of things, and you have an understanding of it. And I think what I feel is what’s lacking the most is basically people find out that they like design, but they don’t understand the ramification of design because the insights in technology will ramify how you design a product. How it works, and design is how it works, to paraphrase Steve Jobs. And again, they need to understand subtle animations, they need to understand what is difficult to code and what is not difficult to code. Why is it difficult to code? Why do we want to push the boundaries here, or why not? So I think that’s a good entry point.
Carl Emil: So it’s caring about all the aspects of the project. Caring about strategy, creative design and technology. So if you care about all those four, and gain an understanding so you can have reasonable debate in all four categories. I think that’s a good starting point. That’s where you are valuable toward, especially their client but also of course influencing your team because you need to translate all these four aspects to your client in whichever field that you’re working in.
Carl Emil: And I think for a designer, it’s very important to understand the three other aspects. I think for engineer, if you understand the other aspects that will make you a valuable engineer. Take our CTO at our company. He is not educated developer. He has an education in communication, but he’s autodidact in coding, and he has huge passion for coding. But because he understands communication, because he understands the strategic and creative side of it. He codes better than anyone else I’ve met. Not because he writes better code, but because the code he makes is human. But the general entry point, how do you get into the business? How do you stuff like that? I think it works the same way it’s always done. You need to drink a lot of beers with a lot of people. So go out and meet a lot of people and network. That’s basically the best way you can do things.
Carl Emil: I feel like, personally, what makes the physical interactions worth it or what makes it benefit you is basically if you’re there every time. You need to be there repetitively. It’s not enough to meet a person one time, but meet them multiple times so you’re the natural. When you need to explain to someone what you do and why you’re valuable, that’s fine, you can have a great meeting with someone and they’ll understand you’re good at this and if we ever find out we need this, we can hire you or whatever, or you can be part of our company, but if you’re there at every event, every book release, every whatever you need to go in the field you are. Then you’re on top of their mind every time, and I think that’s the most important thing is being there. So the physical part of it is very, very important, and the relationship building.
Carl Emil: Yeah, and that continues all the way afterwards as well. That’s how you have relationship with your clients. Basically, they assist millions of people that are more talented than you. They assist millions of agencies that are more talented than your agency, or the way you’re working. So it all boils down to who do people like to drink a beer with? I feel that my company has hit a really good market fit, and I think we’ve built extraordinary products, really fantastic clients, but I don’t doubt no-one’s going to miss us if we go bankrupt tomorrow. There’s going to be myriads of companies that want to take over our business there. So it all boils down to who do my clients like to hang around? Because they need to feel secure that we can deliver what we promised we will deliver. That’s of course the most important aspect, but there are other companies that can say that. But do they like to hang around with us? The culture that we’re creating in our company, is that aligned with their culture? And that’s being there physically, and having, creating relationships.
Traditionally, before the digital revolution, projects were usually much clearer. Let’s use a book as a simple example. You will make a design based on a manuscript, it will get printed, and that will be the final product. Minimal possibility for change or an easy update. However, today, with so many digital products, the quote-unquote final version is often just a part of the beginning phase. For example, when launching an e-commerce platform. What you do after the platform is launched is what matters as much as all the previous stages, and then there’s the often overlooked fact that most of those products are going to evolve significantly or get shot down. Working as a strategic director of a creative agency which is pushing those boundaries and operating at the intersection of physical and digital, Carl Emil has the unique experience about how to approach this complex project. I’ve used this opportunity to ask him how does his agency approach that?
Carl Emil: Whenever we start a project we do it in different steps and working iteratively on something means that it’s a ongoing process. So what we usually do when we define a trajectory for a new client or an old client for that matter is that we do it in different phases. The first phase in every client relationship or any new experience or product or whatever we’re building is the discovery phase. Discovery is actually where we map out the issue that is at hand and that will fade into the next phase which is the alpha phase. And the alpha phase is where we define the team that we need to use to solve it. Define the actors, define the technology, define the visual language. Everything that the groundwork of the strategy is involved in the alpha and that is where the strategy is defined as well.
Carl Emil: When the strategy has been defined and when everything is clear, we move onto the beta phase which is the production phase. That’s where the design and the creative part is being done, is where the copywriting, it’s where the interior decorators go in and build a shop or a retail store or a physical space or where the engineers begin to build. That’s definitely in the first part a very long phase. That’s usually four to six months. So everything has a product in the end. Discovery phase is a product that is being improved and that product is basically, “this is what we uncovered. This is what we’re going to solve. Are we all agreeing on that?” Boom, yes. That product is agreed upon and we move onto the alpha phase.
Carl Emil: The alpha is defining the strategy, defining the personnel, the team, the costs, budgets and all that sort of stuff. That’s the product. That’s moved into the beta which is the production and that means that the final product of the beta is a live product and that’s where we move into the next phase which is called live. And I’ve is when we’re rolling and that iterative and that’s the living phase, and that can go on for years, that can go on for 10 years. But then we have a phase that we always plan for as well which is retirement. Everything you do when you build something digital, you know it’s going to di because it’s going to be taken over by something else.
Carl Emil: So that’s something you have to plan for as well. That’s retirement. That’s something that can change over the course of your beta production, that can change over the course of your live phase but always have an understanding of retirement and that basically means what happens when we need to change the strategy? Go back again. What needs when we need to change everything or we don’t wanna use this technology anymore because everything you build something, whether it’s a retail store or a digital space. Where you have recurring users coming again and having an experience. The moment that you change your product you’re taking something away from those people. So making sure you’re ready to retire a product or an experience. That make sure that you actually can follow up with the current users and make that transition work beautiful.
Carl Emil: I think everybody had tried when Facebook has changed their algorithm or their design or Instagram has changed. It’s offboarding users and they spend a lot of time doing the retirement phases. So everything you do has to retire at some point and that’s part of the planning as well that’s going in a live project. And then you can start on from scratch again with the discovery because what will happen is you will solve your problem eventually and when that problem solved you’ve build a culture of a product that was meant to solve a problem and when that problem has been solved you’re still working toward solving a problem and that’s when you die. Because you don’t have a culture to adapt to new problems and that’s why you need to plan for the retirement because when you’ve solved the problem it’s so very important that you go ahead and find the next problem. Or find out, “Okay, we solved this. What does this mean for your future company.” And you can go that in advertising, you can go that in everything that you do.
Carl Emil: And I think going back this is one of the great examples of what’s happening in technology right now. So Apple solved the personal technology with the mobile phone and now we’re heading toward something more, we’re heading to toward is it machine learning? Is it augmented reality? Where are we? So what’s happening right now, all the companies they’re scrambling because their culture is fulfilled. Microsoft fulfilled their culture centuries ago by building the personal computer. They fulfilled it. They have a desktop on every desk. So they’re scrambling around figuring out, “What are we going to do in the future?” They’re a services company now. Which is fine. They found a new crusade which is doing very well but they’re also competing with companies like Google and Amazon.
Carl Emil: Apple, they solved their issue of like, “We want to make the most personal devices in the world.” And they wanted to differentiate themselves by integrating hardware and software. And they’re the only ones who can do that. They do that beautifully. Google right now is scrambling because what Google found out like ... a lot of people say Google won mobile because they had Android or Google and Apple won mobile together whatever. Google’s not making any money on Android. Google is making most of their money on what they did in the beginning and that was making the internet discoverable. That was the mission goal. That was their goal of making the internet discoverable. That’s why they did search and hence that’s still 80% of Google’s revenues today and most of the revenue is beginning to come from mobile of course but they’re not coming from Android. They’re coming from Apple. That’s why Google just paid $3 000 000 000 just to be on Apple’s devices as the Google search results on Siri and Safari because they rely on that and that’s very interesting to see all of them are just throwing spaghetti on the wall hoping it sticks with new technologies. And it’s very interesting to see because that’s not defined by a problem. They’re are trying to find new problems because they know they’re fucked if a small new company finds that problem an solves it. That’s one of the things big companies.
Carl Emil: So working on an advertising campaign and I always use the big four tech companies as a lens to project into basically everything. I try to crystallize what are the ways that those big companies run and their dilemmas, into something as small as a small Instagram campaign. Because you have to always understand that what you’re building now is based on the assumption and a culture but you’re solving a problem. And the moment you solve that problem you’re going to be taken over by somebody else that solves another problem better or has a better market product fit or whatever. You have to always be aware of how do you retire something so you can create a new culture and the beautiful thing though working as an agency with clients is that your whole culture is about finding a problem and solving it. That’s basically when an advertising company runs not a consultancy house.
Mario: Let’s go to the retirement phase.
Carl Emil: The project you have right now. The retirement phase for that should only be dying and that means that you gracefully die. That’s means it’s going to come something new and you’re just going to prepare that you can make that transition as easy as possible. As an agency working for a client though you have to go back to the discovery phase which is starting ... you understand that you know that there’s going to be a death at some point and you need to understand how to approach that. That’s basically where you come back to my job because I need to figure out what is going to happen int eh future and when I see something I would hopefully invite our clients in to have a discussion about that a and beginning that discussion saying, “I think we should think about retiring the product. We made these contingencies, we made this ready, we’re preparing to that destruction. We’re going to kill our and your darling because we’re going to do something new.”
Carl Emil: And one of the things I like when we’re talking about retirement is when you do something that is profitable. The hardest thing in the world is killing that and if you do not kill your darling like that, if you do not kill your most profitable product you’re going to die because an incumbent is going to make a product that’s better or newer. That’s the innovative dilemma and that’s disruption. I hate that term but that’s basically what disruption is and one of the things I found was really beautiful take Apple again as an example. That’s what I use as a lens is they introduce the iPad mini back in 2003 or something like that and it was the biggest product Apple ever had. It was the most selling product at all. Next year they discontinued that line of product even though it’s the most growing product they’ve ever had. It makes more money than the entire Mac line-up that they’ve been having since the 70s. And they’re just discontinuing that line. They’re replacing it with another line of iPods. The iPod nano but it’s basically completely new technology. Has a different value and has different value proposition for the customers. And even though like isn’t it just a smaller iPod? No, this is a completely new product. And they’re discontinuing the biggest selling product they’ve ever had in the history and if they hadn’t done that maybe another company would go in and do that.
Carl Emil: That takes a lot of balls to do that and I think that is so very important that you can actually do these things.
Hey, friends. You’re listening to the Creative Voyage Podcast. We are roughly in the middle of this episode, so it’s time for a short break. There’s no team behind the show. It’s solely produced and edited by me, Mario. I don’t have any sponsors, and I have no plans to add any. Nevertheless, I can use all the help I can get growing the show. If you like what you’ve heard so far, there’s three simple things you can do for me and future episodes. Number one, review the show on Apple Podcasts. Number two, tell a friend and share a link on social media. Number three, visit the shop on creative.voyage/shop and support the show by buying bespoke Creative Voyage Products. Thanks everyone. Let’s get back to the show.
At this point in our conversation I was curious to hear what are Carl Emil’s current professional challenges. There’s what he shared with me.
Carl Emil: We’re still a small agency. We’re 15 people. It’s been in such a crazy growth spurt for us anyways. Especially for someone like me who’s 25 years old and basically I have a lot of experience for a 25-year-old guy but I’m still 25 years old. So it’s been a fun ride to be part of and I think what happens when you create something if you don’t learn something everyday you get bored and I still feel like I’m learning so much every day about building a company because now just the fact that you’re three years old. You create an agency, you have hired people. That was more than you imagined when you began and not in the largest sense but in the small sense and now you have to figure out what is company culture. I talk a lot about company culture. That’s what I do in most of my talks when I’m hired to do talks for companies. I talk about company culture. But now you have your own company and you have cultures there and you have to actually cultivate a good culture there, a work culture. You need to think about HR, you need to think about benefits, you need to think about wages and you need to be a good boss at the same time.
Carl Emil: And I think that’s one of the things that I’m learning most right now and I think it’s interesting being a developing company. It’s like, “How do you handle when an employee is sick all the time?” Or how do you handle ... those small things that you’re not used to when you’re just four partners sitting in a basement and working 80 hours a week. Suddenly you have a responsibility to people and you hired people to work 37 hours a week and you don’t understand why they’re not there 80 hours a week right? But they shouldn’t. That is a good culture. How do you actually cultivate those kinds of things? Can you create a good lunch service? Can you do these kinds of stuff? And it’s a very learning process which I found out very quickly I was horrible at which luckily my colleagues and my partners are very good at.
Mario: Would you say in this whole ride that this is your biggest struggle professionally?
Carl Emil: I think it’s my biggest struggle right now actually. It’s basically that because I know that our employees are the most important asset that we have in our company and we have fantastic people but yeah I think that’s one of the things that I’m struggling with most. Just the fact you have to think about the height of a table or a chair. How does a chair work? Do we get ergonomically good chairs? I never thought about that, I could work on the floor, I don’t care. So I’m so happy to have colleagues that actually think about these things. We have a new girl starting. Have we covered that she has a chair and a computer and a desk and all those kind of stuff? I have no idea and that’s the things that you also just figure out. Those small things are very important also just to be happy to work somewhere. You need the tools for you to empower people and I love it now but I hated it. We’ve had hours-long discussion of whether our tables should be 75 centimeters high or 83 centimeters high and I don’t care, I can sit with any table but people have a certain height. They want tables in a certain height and that’s an issue when you buy new tables because normal tables that rent adjustable. They’ll be 70 something centimeters high. You can’t work with that.
Carl Emil: So those discussion has been surprising. You’ll think you’ll have big long arguments about your company’s strategy or clients or what not and you end up discussing what kind of lamps you’re having, what kind of tables you’re having, how high they are. Are these shitty chairs good enough? Or can we afford to buy graded chairs? And that’s sort of stuff. And that’s funny and that’s next level things for me really to be discussing because I can take a long discussion about how we look at the big four American tech giants and see how that pertains to our customers products and how we sell those products but the fact that how do we decorate our office or that sort of stuff which is important. That part goes way above my head and I find myself being dumbfounded every time like, “Wow, this is something that we need to discuss.” And we figure out when we discuss it, ti was really really important that we did discuss this and we found a solution for this and that’s one of the things that’s also a very big part of struggling.
Currently Carl Emil is involved in a wide range of projects and works in very different industries. From the digital agency and a coffee subscription product to natural wine. Working with a Brazil NGO and documentary production. I know Carl Emil personally so I have first hand experience of his drive and openness for new creative adventures. That curiosity seems to be working for him so I’ve asked him to talk about his other ventures and what he gets out of them.
Carl Emil: What I found out early was that ... you know you find out your qualities. One of my qualities is ima fast enabler and I want to start things and I’m really good at starting project up because I have a lot of care, I see an omission somewhere and I wanna fill that gap. I wanna create something. I wanna tell stories. That’s why I’ve always found that for me to be the best at my job I need to do something different of what I’m doing normally. So starting from a position of being a strategic director in Strøm, I’ve run multiple side projects at the same time which I think enables me to be a better director. So through a small investment company that I started, Seed Investment Company. I work in various small projects that I either take time off to do from Strøm or that I do simultaneously.
Carl Emil: One of the things that I created and it was just when, that was before Strøm existed was I wanted to have fresh coffee in my home and I never really cared for coffee at all but I found myself in a position where I helped a company create a café and suddenly there was a lot of decisions about what kind of coffee should we drink? What kind of machine should we use? All this sort of stuff and I didn’t really care about it at all but I had because we were creating this so I had to find an interest in it. And then I went to cuppings and tastings and found out that coffee was so much more than I ever thought it was and what it really boiled down to me was it’s all about the freshness and the quality of the beans and at that point it was really really difficult to get freshly roasted coffee unless you knew a roastery.
Carl Emil: So I took the notion saying, “okay, I know technology and now I know a bit about coffee. If we combine these things what are technology good at online. What are web stores good at?” They’re good at logistics. They’re good at keeping stock down and what is the worst thing for coffee? It was the deterioration. Within three or four weeks after you’ve roasted a bag of coffee it lost 40% of it’s aroma. So the worst thing for a coffee is actually to sit in a store that has the stock. I went to an old friend of mine who was a developer and said, “Do you wanna start a coffee company together?” And he was like, “But ima developer.” Yeah, absolutely. I think technology is the most important part of any coffee company today. So we went and we rented a coffee roastery and I hired a chef that knew how to roast coffee and we had a long debate about what kind of coffee we’d like and we built a e-commerce platform that could handle subscription payments. That’s when you have consumerization of technology again because companies like Stripe and Automattic that’s does WordPress and WooCommerce they actually made some very cheap software that made it very very easy for us to build a subscription online service.
Carl Emil: So within a month we’d defined a coffee profile. We started a coffee roasting company and we’re shipping coffee out twice a month to customers online. And I’ve been running that ever since. I sold half of the company to Strøm when we started Strøm and for us that was an amazing fixture because that’s when we combined technology and the physicalities. And suddenly going from building e-commerce solutions for clients we were also having our own. So suddenly we had a playground to test all the things that we were trying to convince our customers to do. One of the beautiful things about the coffee company and the technology was that we did it subscription based. We only roasted coffee that was part of the subscription, that got online ordered. We started a coffee company without any stock at all and we still to this day and it’s over three years old now. We don’t have any stock. We sell to companies, we sell to private people. We still a small micro roastery, we roast about two tons a year but we keep it without stock and right now one of the things ... thing is very interesting for me is that we’re going from now we’re running three years as kind of a beta project of mine. I thought it’s hilarious to work with but we’re going international now because why build a web shop that only works in Denmark?
Carl Emil: And that’s a funny project that I’ve been really fortunate to be work- then of course I work with a few other projects. One of the more fun projects I’ve been working with has been documentary film making NGOs. Just when I started Strøm I had a really good friend back from my left-wing political activist career and she moved to South America to produce documentary films and at some point she found herself living in one of the biggest favelas in the world called Rocinha, it’s in Rio De Janiero and she invited me over there for both helping her produce her documentary film and also to start and NGO there and the reason that there was a need to start an NGO was the fact that because of the World Cup and because of The Olympics in Brazil they had done a thing called pacification of the favelas and favelas are these big slum neighborhoods and the pacification basically means that they send a SWAT team in and they shoot a lot of people and then they enforce the area by having a massive presence of police. That has a lot of problems on its own.
Carl Emil: But what it enabled was actually suddenly there was, it enabled tourists to come and visit which is a good thing like they’re lived about 300 000 people in a favela like Rocinha and that meant that the economy could get money from outside. You have a small city, a whole infrastructure. You have 300 000 people there. There was a Sunset Boulevard inside the favela. There was Wifi in the favela. There wasn’t running water, there wasn’t really electricity in the topside but there was wifi and there was Sunset Boulevard and there were sushi places. But what was happening though is that this big tourist agencies they would drive in Jeeps and they will have tourists and they will drive around so all the money now that could be generated from the favela was getting lost because it was just channeling through the favela. So there was a lot of rich people getting more money from the favela but the out sharing the favela. And I’m thinking like, “Okay, I have knowledge within technology. I have some knowledge within tourism. I’ve done some tourism in Copenhagen before. I have no knowledge in filmmaking but I’ll love to give it a go,”
Carl Emil: So I started a small production company and I started an NGO before we sat down there so we could actually have some sort of organization surrounding it. So I took a leave of absence. Traveled to Rio for half a year and set that up and what we did was I had talked to the local guys that was living there. They were my age, they were in the beginning of the 20s and what they wanted to do which I loved, they wanted to show the favela to tourists. They were really proud. They also wanted to show the problems and the good things. We sat down and said, “We’re going to do a walking tour of the favela.” But the problem is if we’re going to promote it at the local hotels. If we’re going to get out there and get them and we take a fee, they want a cut. And we don’t wanna share any cut with them, we wanna get all the cut down to the people doing the guiding tours and we also wanna show the local spaces. We want to generate money interesting he areas locally.
Carl Emil: So how do we do that? I said to the guys, “I know it’s going to sound hard but I think we should do the walking tour for free because if we do it for free the hotels cannot take a surcharge of it and they’ll have to offer something free for their customers and we’ll get more customers here.” And of course they said, “But how are we going to make money.” But we’re going to do like all the western countries are doing it, we’re going to do it tip based. But the thing is people there don’t really use credit cards. They use cash there and especially the tourists don’t think that nobody can take credit cards. So we knew that they going to bring some cash but we also knew that if people brought cash there and they knew there was going to be a tipping later on because you have to make that clear from the beginning. That this is a tip based walking tour. People will be afraid of using that money in the favela because they’re afraid like, how much should we tip? And can we sit here and eat in a restaurant or whatever?
Carl Emil: I gave a call to a Swedish company called iZettle who does credit card transactions that I’ve been working with and said, “You’re always talking about democratization of payments and technology. So here I have a fucking brilliant case for you guys. I have 10 20-year-old kids interesting eh slums of Rio. We have wifi that we want to take credit cards and we think it’s a beautiful story. We do this as empowerment, we do this to teach the kids English. We use it to do these things.” And they were so keen about the project that they sponsored the credit card readers and the smartphones for the projects and so from within a few weeks in the favela we had a tourist company working inside the favela, powered by the NGO, taking credit cards on smartphones in a slum neighborhood that hardly has electricity and water supplies. And that meant that we could actually take them out on the restaurants, the local spaces and give them a fantastic tour where they actually weren’t afraid of using the money that they brought with them to drive the local economy whilst also actually giving generous tips afterwards because one of the things we could do with eh smartphones also like doing suggested tips. We suggest you pay this amount of Reals, the local currency.
Carl Emil: And that made it really easy for us to do that, to control that. We can distribute it towards all the people working the at favela and all the money went directly to these guys. So that’s a project that still lives there today and is going well and I’m not part of it as more than I’m a consultant for them or I work as a ... I advise them. That’s been one of the most fun projects while I was simultaneously doing a documentary with the Sidsel, the film director who I was traveling there with and with whom I’m done multiple documentary films with later on in Cuba as well. That’s been one of my favorite projects that I’ve ever been involved with and it’s something that changed me as a person as well. Living there in the slums of Rio with the most amazing people that I’ve never experienced hospitality like that. I would live in a one bed apartment with nine people and they would always have food for me, they’d always have space for me and it was pretty humbling experience staying there with them. And scary experience as well. You would be in a shooting suddenly somewhere between drug lords and policemen and you would lie on the floor.
Carl Emil: One of the first nights I was there I was sitting in a bar drinking caipirinha’s with the local guys there and I didn’t speak a word Portuguese, everybody spoke Portuguese and I tried to fumble along there but suddenly we were all lying on the floor because there’s rapid gunfire over our heads and shit I’ve never been in a crossfire before. I was just lying on the floor all flat when somebody takes hold of my shoulder and I get fucken scared. I turn around and I see it’s the bartender and he’s finished my caipirinha. So here you go. There’s you caipirinha and I’m just like, “Oh, thank you.” And that was a weird experience because suddenly you’re doing something so normal than accepting and paying for a caipirinha while you’re lying on the floor being shot, that normalize the situation so much for me that all your scaredness and all your fears just disappeared like this is apparently the lives that some people live in right? It was a very humbling experience but that was an everyday thing.
Carl Emil: But it basically boils down to I believe, for me in general the way that I can work a 100% is to do other stuff as well and do projects. I don’t work on basis, I cannot take a holiday where I just relax. I think I would be bored to death. I need to do a project. But actually doing another project like doing a documentary about tupperware and crime in Cuba and the death of Fidel Castro. That’s relaxing to me in a way because it’s such a different aspect of what I do in a daily basis that you go back to your work completely energized and doing an NGO in the favelas of Rio does the same thing. It’s hard work but it’s so different than what you normally do as work, it’s fantastic.
Carl Emil: Doing coffee I’m out twice a month packing the coffee and helping part of the roasting. That’s a physical task. You collect 200 kilos of coffee in brown paper bags and that’s a physical labor that I love to do every other week and it’s something that I come back to the office after I’ve done the packaging in the morning re-energized because I’ve done something differently, I’ve been out shipping coffee. Or working as a member of the board of natural wine import company. I get to live out a life that’s completely different than my normal job. Working in the import of wine, meeting natural wine-makers from south of France. Being part of a completely different universe filled with people that are just as energized as me in working the tech and advertising industry. You find out that there’s so many different aspect of work life and there’s just as many souls and fires going on with people in the different feels that is very inspiring and I think that’s what keeps it interesting to work in whatever field you are. That you actually have a touch point in different aspects and you get re-energized by other people’s energy in different fields.
We’ve come to the very end of the conversation I had with Carl Emil. I aim to wrap up every episode with closing take aways from my guests. Here’s what Carl Emil shared with me.
Carl Emil: I think what I found out and what has grown me personally is communication and I think that’s where the biggest mistakes that I’ve made and the biggest learnings that I’ve had is communication. Because during any client project you’ll do mistakes, you’ll have failures. You’ll just have campaigns that won’t work and that’s just life but everything that I’ve failed or every customer I’ve lost or any project that’s just died. It all boils down to communication and specific the lack thereof and you have the tendency to be very communicative when things are going well. When you find hiccups or you’re not certain of things, that’s where communicating halts and that’s what differs a good agency or a good consultant or solid people is that where communication is most important. That can be communication internally within a team or externally between you and a client is the communication is most important when things are not going as planned. And if you are forthcoming in the communication when things are not panning out then almost anything can be let go. Can grow and can be a sustainable business still.
Carl Emil: What I’ve learnt most is basically the importance of being up front in your communication with your clients and with your team. So not making them guess where you are. Not making people guess what you feel about something. Being forthright and communicative. There’s so many people that are more smart in that part than me. I just think that that’s basically what I had to learn for myself. Even though I have a clear idea of how I want to communicate with my clients, with my team. Is that it’s something where you can always improve and it’s some of the things that I’ve learnt the most from. Is basically bad communication and luckily I’ve had a lot of good projects which means that I’ve had a lot of good communications but every time a project that has gone wrong the thing that I’ve done that I’ve either lost a client or gotten a bad relationship with a business partner or anything that has been the lack of communication.
Carl Emil: That is in both when you’re at fault and you do not communicate or when you feel other people are not living up to what they should and that’s one of the hardest things, that’s actually the communication where you do critique of other people and I feel it’s very important to create a culture in whatever you’re doing where you actually can be harsh and be up front and say, “This is not okay.” Or, “This is not what we agreed upon.” Or, “This is below what I expect from you.” And that is some of the things that I’ve had the most difficulties with and I think that’s one of the key learnings that I’ve had to be up front if things are going off the track. If you say it right up front and say, “This is the issue we’re having right now. I do not know how to solve it. We’re working on the knowledge of how to solve it.” Because what you want usually is like, shit you found out that you have a problem here. Then you want to go to your client and say, “There was a problem and we solved it.” Or, “This is how we’re going to solve it.”
Carl Emil: But if you don’t have an answer you don’t wanna take the communication. Internally or externally and what I think I’ve found out it’s so important to take that communication even though you don’t have an answer yet because the moment that they’re in the loop, whether it be internal or external then people feel safe and communication is all about making sure the people around you are safe. Or feel safe. The moment they’re insecure, that’s where the problems starts and that’s where everything can go really really shitty. Even though things are going well. So the fact that ongoing communication and being up front. I think that’s the lesson that I’ve thought was most important and something that I’m still shitty at it sometimes. I’ll not communicate with a client, I’ll not communicate with my team when I’m unhappy, when I’m happy, when things are going wrong, when things are going right. Everybody needs to be in the loop ’cause if things are going right and nobody’s saying anything people also get insecure, “Are we going in the right direction? Do people know where I am in this project? Do they know where they are? Do I as a client, do I know what they’re doing or building?” And that communication is vital.
Carl Emil: What you’re doing is basically you’re taking a client in your hand and then you have to follow them all the way through and at some point you have to let go but you need to hold them in their hand the entire time and that works both for you and for the client and I think that’s some of the biggest mistakes that I’ve done, that’s cost the company most. It’s basically that.
Hey everyone, I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Carl Emil. I think we touched on a lot of useful information for anybody out there interested in technology, strategy and growth as creative professional.
I want to thank Carl Emil fro coming onto the show. I think his thoughts on intersection of digital, physical, creativity and strategy are timely and useful. Also, he’s a great friend and the very first person who I interviewed for this podcast. I’m grateful.Links to Carl Emil’s work, his Instagram as well as to some other things interviewed during our conversation can be found in the show notes and creative.voyage/podcast.
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