Mark Baldino is a study in prudence. As one of the founders of Fuzzy Math, a digital applications user enhancement firm, Mark’s path to entrepreneurship reads like a strategy manual for careful, well-researched growth. Beginning his career as an information architect, Mark honed his user experience (UX) design skills at several startups before joining Orbitz. While working at Orbitz in 2007, and noting the increasing demand for UX design and enhancement, Mark saw the opportunity to strike out on his own as a UX design consultant and embarked on what he refers to as his “constantly worrying about whether you can pay your bills” freelance period.
He did pay his bills, and he developed an impressive client roster, including Microsoft, United Airlines, and LeapFrog. Meanwhile, the additional Fuzzy Math founders were also working as freelance information architects and UX designers. They recognized the potential to gel their freelance experiences into a consultancy, and in 2009, Fuzzy Math was born.
Completing its fifth year of operation this month, Fuzzy Math reflects the founders’ mission to build a company where they would want to work. With a flat organizational structure and an emphasis on company-supported personal goal setting, Fuzzy Math thrives by empowering its employees to take charge of their personal and professional growth. Fuzzy Math also benefits from a deliberate and cautious growth plan. Mark spoke with me about this plan and about his startup experience from Fuzzy Math’s home in Lincoln Park, Chicago:
What was the inspiration for creating Fuzzy Math and how did you fund its development?
When the founders and I started freelancing together, we realized that not only did we work extremely well as a team, but also that there was a market for a user experience design consultancy–a design focused company that didn’t have to be part of a larger organization like a development company. We were talking to our freelance clients about our ideas, and they were responding positively, and we recognized that we could be specialists and build a firm to fill that user experience design niche. We used our freelance work to finance the startup costs for the firm. We are 100% self-funded and proud of it.
What problem does Fuzzy Math Solve?
We specialize in translating data and processes into optimal user experiences. We perform user research and analyze user data to help our clients make their applications more efficient, effective, and enjoyable for their users. The problems that we solve typically come in two types of batches: the first is a client who has an idea for an application and wants to develop that application with optimal user experience in mind, and the second is a client who already has an existing application but wants to update or improve the application in response to existing user data. We do a lot of work with healthcare companies, including GE-Microsoft Healthcare and Mayo Clinic, and other clients include IBM and Wells Fargo.
What is the story behind Fuzzy Math’s name?
We see our work in design as tackling user experience problems that are somewhat thorny and complex–so much so that the problems come across as “fuzzy” or hard to pin down. Our clients generally come to us with a rough idea of what they want to do or what the problem is, and then it’s our job to use design strategies and formulas (which is where the “math” part comes in) to turn that somewhat undefined problem into a tangible objective for improving user experience.
What setbacks did you encounter in developing Fuzzy Math?
The biggest setback was that I didn’t know what I was doing. When I quit work at Orbitz, I didn’t know that I was going to start a company–it wasn’t on my mind, so once we decided to make that call the challenge was figuring out what we needed to do. I didn’t know anything about contracts; I didn’t know anything about how to ensure a profit margin–none of this was on my radar when I left Orbitz, and when you’re a freelancer, you worry about making enough money to pay your bills. With a company, you’re worrying about making enough money to pay everyone’s bills. I had to learn all the stuff about financials, about legal, but the biggest stumbling block wasn’t just that I didn’t know this stuff, it was that I had no idea how much I didn’t know!
What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs in a similar situation?
Pure information sharing is extremely important for startups. Find a mentor. Formal and informal mentors are super important. The people who have helped me the most run businesses around the same size and age as Fuzzy Math but are a little bit larger and have been around a little longer–they have already gone through some of the problems I’m facing. I start by sharing lunch or coffee with people in these firms, and we build trust, and once a certain level of trust is reached, we start to share information and ideas. That’s been the greatest source of help for me–finding other people who have been in my shoes and asking them what they did, how they handled it.
What are some of your goals for entrepreneurship?
My first goal is building a company that I would want to work at if I were looking for a position. Frankly, more so than design, I am passionate about finding the right people to join our team and making sure that our team is happy and healthy and growing. We spend a lot of time on goal planning and encouraging our staff to take charge of their careers and to take ownership of Fuzzy Math’s growth and development. We also really respect work-life balance, and our company policies reflect that.
My other goal is to continue our stable growth. We’ve taken a very controlled path to growth, and we’ve been successful and profitable. When we make decisions about growth–about hiring and project selection–we tend to be pretty process-oriented and pretty thorough, and we take an even-keeled approach–we try not to get too excited about the next big thing. We’re also pretty careful about the work we choose. We don’t want to take on too much work or grow too fast, and we want to select projects in our focus area. All of this means that we turn down some work opportunities, some potentially profitable work opportunities, but it’s this careful, well-thought-out selection that has been the key to our stability and success as a startup.
What about your work-life balance? How do you recharge in your spare time?
Furniture building is one of my hobbies. I like working with my hands, and I’ve also rehabbed several homes. I get a lot of satisfaction out of it, and so much of what I do for work is team-oriented that I really appreciate the chance to do something solitary. And I’m always reading, running, and trying to find new beers that I like.
On that last note, will you consider trading startup advice for beer recommendations?
That’s the real reason I started the company…to afford good beer. Seriously, I’m always up for exchanging ideas for a beer. And I prefer low-hop ESBs.
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