Want to own your own business? Interested in using your imagination and design skills to create innovative products and technologies? Then read on to learn what it’s like to run Pensa through the lens of Kathy Larchian, co-founder and head of Pensa’s creative agency. And, if you’re a NYC-based startup, you may want to consider Pancakes with Pensa, a monthly breakfast, exclusively for startups, where you can receive instant product feedback and get questions answered by Pensa pros. And pancakes. Lots of pancakes.
Tell us about your role at Pensa, what do you do?
Pensa is a Brooklyn-based product design and invention firm that I founded with my husband, Marco Perry, a mechanical engineer and industrial designer. I run the business side of our creative agency, taking a bird’s eye view of Pensa and its operations including managing the creative teams, marketing, financial, legal, and business development. My job is to forecast and plan for the future, by accounting for what I know today.
What’s a typical day like?
It starts with waking my two kids and helping them get ready for school (I’m typically on breakfast detail). I bike into work, meet with my partners (my husband Marco and Mark Prommel, our design director) to create a prioritized list of what we’ll get done that day. Then, I review our progress on project work as well as any current marketing or sales needs, look at our staff’s current and future workload (three months out) to see if we have any staffing/resource or accounting needs. I’m always putting out fires and planning for the future. After work I bike home, talk about school and life with kids while making dinner with Marco, clean up together, get the kids to bed, do 15-20 minutes of yoga, get things in order for the next day and finally shut down for the night.
How did you go from a degree in Anthropology and Spanish to managing a design and innovation firm?
I put myself through much of undergrad and all of graduate school (twice!). So, while I was pursuing my Master’s Degree in Physical Anthropology, I was also working in a management position in a small design firm. It was there that I began to really enjoy the challenges of running a creative business, and after a few years I moved to a much larger design firm. At some point I realized that this, running a creative firm, was my passion. I got my MBA, had two children, and then started Pensa with my husband, Marco.
What’s the project you’re most proud of and why?
Pensa is the project that I am most proud of. The business itself is my greatest achievement. We’re fairly young (11 years) and every design project builds our path to success. I’m incredibly proud of everything we’ve created.
A few recent projects I’m excited about include: One Drop, the most gorgeous, functional Bluetooth-enabled, blood-glucose-monitoring system to help improve the lives of diabetics. Another is goTenna PRO, a military-grade device that helps everyone from firefighters to natural disaster rescue teams communicate off-grid, without cell or WiFi service. (This is the third product we’ve designed for start-up goTenna, which is super exciting!).
Also, we recently launched the DIWire PRO, the first-ever desktop wire bender that transforms digitally drawn curves into actual bent wire to make just about anything. It’s a new paradigm for rapid prototyping and short-run production, which is dear to me because it’s an innovation of our own team’s making. It’s amazing to see it adopted by MIT, NASA, Intel—and how it’s opened up new frontiers for artists and designers.
What’s the biggest challenge you face as you try to lead a creative, technical team?
Hiring is the biggest challenge. It’s time consuming, and sometimes you don’t find a qualified candidate, even after three interview rounds. Second to that is resourcing; managing in-coming projects and allocating teams; making sure that no one is overbooked. Team happiness equals busy, but not overbooked.
For anyone reading this who is thinking, “I’d love to have her job!” what advice would you have for them?
If you’d love to have my job, that means you’d love to start your own business, which is like “jumping off a cliff and building your plane on the way down.” My advice: stay focused, be honest, own your decisions, and listen to advice… but take it with a grain of salt.
What’s your secret to getting things done?
Lists. I have a dynamic running list of objectives that I revisit every day, which I then use to create my smaller “get done today” list. It’s important to not overload the to-do’s though; I make sure they’re doable and realistic.
When you’re needing work inspiration, what do you do?
I pick my head up and look around. I find inspiration in the dynamics of the Pensa team, my kids and just people, in general…which may explain why I was so drawn to Anthropology.
Innovation is a huge buzzword; a lot of companies talk about it. How do you fuel real innovation at Pensa?
We have an amazing team; it’s diverse and talented. We encourage debate, provide a solid process and lot of love, which fuels ideas and creates great work.
We also allot creative time for the team to think about challenges we face in our own environment—whether in the office, home or our city. The team brainstorms top issues, narrows them down and then begins to build on concepts for solutions. It’s a welcomed opportunity to make something independently that we can create and own as a team. This is how we conceived Street Charge, the first-ever solar phone charging stations that were adopted by NYC parks (now manufactured and distributed by NRG); the DIWire desktop wire bender, and Merge, the ultimate urban bicycle.
What’s the best and worst advice you’ve ever received, period?
When I had my first baby, someone told me, “take advice with a grain of salt.” And it’s a good point; what’s good for someone else, may not be what’s good for you. Another that’s stuck with me, “If you don’t agree with what a document says, then don’t sign it.” I do like advice – it allows me to see a situation from different perspectives. But I connect with these two examples because they remind me that, ultimately, I’m the decision-maker and need to own it. I don’t pay much mind to bad advice.