Verne Ho is the Director of Design at Shopify in Toronto, previously he co-founded Jet Cooper. A few months back he caught my attention with a Medium post he wrote detailing everything he had learned about mobile photography. It was fascinating to watch his photography improve but even more fascinating to see the process he took to learning a new skill. When we spoke it was clear that Verne's intelligent and efficient approach to learning extends to many aspects of his life. He shares his path to design, co-founding his own design studio and how he got started in photography. I hope you enjoy reading his interview as much as I did speaking with him.
Tell me more about what you do?
At Shopify, I’m the Director of Design and I’m based out of the Toronto office. We essentially build software that enables people to sell products of all kinds – online, in store, and even on social channels like Facebook and Pinterest. In the bigger picture though, we’re about enabling entrepreneurship and democratizing commerce by making it accessible to anyone.
In my role as Director of Design, I’m responsible for overseeing all the design work that we do out of the Toronto office and also for ensuring the well-being and happiness of all the designers on the team. Working with people tends to be a pretty big portion of my time on a day to day basis.
Outside of Shopify I also write and speak at conferences and events occasionally. More recently I’ve been dabbling in photography and that’s the new obsession that’s been consuming the majority of my time outside of work.
How did you get into design? Did you study design in school?
I didn’t study design in school at all, but I’ve always been really interested in arts and design since I was a kid, and always pursued it as a hobby. When it came time to choose my University program, my parents wanted me to choose something that was a little bit more practical. It definitely didn’t help that my brother was already on his way to becoming a lawyer. For me, the choices were pretty much going into medicine or becoming an engineer or something like that. I ended up going into Business, which turned out to be the best decision that I could have made. Going to business school rounded out my soft skills to complement my creative passions. I learned a lot about time management, prioritizing, and relationship building, which has been really critical throughout my career. Some of the people I met in that program are lifelong friends and business partners now too. So that was a rewarding decision for me to make even though I didn’t know it at the time.
Throughout University though, while I was studying business, I started doing freelance design work. This also led me to do a lot of creative work for campaigns while I did my co-op placement at Microsoft, which in turn, fuelled even more freelance work once I was done my term. By the time I was done University, my tuition was completely paid for through all that freelance work alone.
What was your path to Shopify like?
When I graduated, I decided that because I had put about 3-4 years into my freelance practice, it made sense for me to give it my all and see what it meant to do it full-time. I promised my dad that I’d give it a year and if all went to hell, I’d still be able to apply for jobs after. As it turned out, it went really well. I ended up freelancing for a year-and-a-half or so, until I became a bit restless from just working by myself every day. It was at that point that I was introduced to a friend of a friend who was running a design studio and a start-up downtown. I met them and ended up joining them as a lead designer for their product for about 6 months or so. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get funding for that product so we ended up shutting down. However, around that time, in early 2009, myself and someone I’d worked with throughout University got together and asked ourselves what we’d do differently if we could redo the freelance practice we ran in University.
And that’s where Jet Cooper was born. Jet Cooper was a design studio that we founded together in 2009 and grew to about 25 people over the next 4.5 years. We were doing design for digital products and were working with tech-centric companies of all sizes. By our fourth year, our flagship clients were TELUS, Sobeys, and Cineplex, and we were involved in the re-design of all of their core properties. It was around then when Shopify approached us and eventually ended up acquiring our entire team. On August 1st, 2013, the 25 of us became 40 as we joined forces with the other 15 Shopifolk that were already in Toronto.
What drove you to start exploring mobile photography or photography in general?
Photography is something that I’ve always been interested in and intrigued by. But it’s also always been hugely intimidating. There was just something that scared me away so I never got into it. Late last year, I happened to be at two different conferences where I was exposed to two prominent designers who were well known in the design field but were also equally well-known for their photography work. Through coincidence, I was given the privilege of seeing how they worked and how they looked at photography. That experience really lowered the barrier and made me less intimidated by the process. I kind of looked at what they were doing and I was like, ‘You know what, maybe it’s not that difficult after all. Maybe I can give it a shot.’
So in January I set out to do that, and I made a conscious effort at the time to stay away from looking into the hardware and make due with the camera I already had on my iPhone. I focused more on the technique of composition, lighting, editing, and storytelling. The way I saw it was that if I didn’t have those things down pat, then the best camera in the world wasn’t going to help me anyway. Eventually I upgraded to a dedicated camera, but that was essentially my first foray into photography.
What were some of your sources when you were getting started?
I'd like to say that I went and did a ton of research around all the different places that I could learn and then made the right choice on what platform. But it didn't really happen that way. There were three different things that helped me to learn photography: The first was Skillshare. Skillshare was an incredible resource for me. I bought a membership early on in the year and I quickly discovered that they had a ton of photography resources. There were two courses in particular that I took – one by Trashhand and the other byDan Rubin. Those two combined were catalysts for getting me super inspired to go and experiment with photography. Since then, I’ve continued to watch many other photography courses that have popped up on SkillShare, so I’m still learning a ton from that site.
Secondly, I tried to meet up with as many photographers as I possibly could – connections bridged mostly through Instagram. The things you learn when you meet up with other creatives is just phenomenal. To see the world through the eyes of another creative is always going to give you new insights and teach you a lot of new things. So I did that a lot and I met a ton of new people, all of them more talented than I was. I did my best to be diligent with how I was spending my time with them, asking them questions about their work and their process every chance I could.
The third thing I did was spend a lot of time shooting. I can’t emphasize this point enough for anybody who’s learning a brand new craft: you have to put the time in. So I would shoot every day, which was made easier since I had my phone in my pocket everywhere I went. Even just on my walk to work I would be shooting a ton, and mind you, I live 5 minutes away from work so I had to start getting pretty creative with the routes I’d take in order to shoot new subject matter. At the end of each day, I would have hundreds of new photos in my camera roll. Hundreds of photos that I could use to collect data points on what was working well and what wasn’t working well. And the next day would be an opportunity to try new things again.
It's really refreshing to hear that it's still super important to put a ton of time into something...
Absolutely. The way we learn is something that’s really been top of mind for me recently. We’ve all heard the concept that learning is a lifelong activity but what we don’t talk about a lot is how we can learn more productively. In other words, how do we learn to learn effectively? It’s super meta but also incredibly important.
What do you find most rewarding about what you do right now?
Maybe the best way to answer this is to talk about my two main passions. First is the act of creation, and secondly, is building teams. The beauty of what I get to do today at Shopify is that it’s at the intersection of both of these passions.
The act of creation is such an incredibly fulfilling experience for me. The process of coming up with ideas, the process of trial and error, and the opportunity to put something out there that can affect other people and leave them better off – all of that is really fulfilling for me.
Working with people goes hand-in-hand with that. For me, talent is really exciting. To see somebody who’s full of potential and work with them to unlock it to create great things is also really rewarding for me. To play a role in helping people connect the dots between what they’re passionate about and the impact that they can create is a joy that I haven’t been able to find anywhere else.
At the end of the day, it’s the thought that I can leave the world better off than how I got it, either through the people I’ve worked with or through the things I’ve created myself, that makes all the hard work worth it.
What do you find the most challenging?
When I reflect on all of the things that I spend my time and energy on, I think the thing that’s always going to be most challenging is working with people. I know I just told you that working with people is also one of the most rewarding aspects, but the truth is that it’s only rewarding because it’s such an inherently challenging thing to do. And in a team that is growing so quickly, it can sometimes be very challenging to align such a diverse set of talents to a core set of missions. As a result, in my role, I often have to wear many hats and play the role of a facilitator, an educator, a mentor, and a manager, among other things. Each of my relationships are unique in their own way, which takes a ton of energy to nurture over time. There are no shortcuts when it comes to this stuff, but it’s definitely a worthy investment.
What tools do you use on a regular basis?
I'll avoid talking about the more boring and common things like Google Apps and Slack. Although those are really critical communication tools for everyone to collaborate with other people and I use them every single day.
But other things that may be more unique to me:
Evernote - This tends to be where I drop all of my randomly connected or disconnected thoughts. It’s a great place for everything and anything.
Things - When it comes to to-do lists, everybody’s got their favourite to-do list and everyone loves debating what’s best. For me, Things has always been the to-do list of choice. It has a lot of features but I pretty much just use it to manage what I need to do today and what I need to do after today. Those are the only two scopes that I think anyone really needs.
Dropbox - We’re all digital hoarders now so we need simple storage solutions. We use Dropbox at Shopify but I also use it personally to store things like photos.
Instagram - I’d be lying if I didn’t say I use Instagram on a daily basis. It’s such a powerful creative outlet. It’s the place where I publish my photography work but it’s also the place where I go to get inspired by other creatives in the community.
Pinterest - I use a lot of private boards just to collect inspiration. Whether it’s for photography, design, fashion, or any number of different things that are important to me. Pinterest happens to be an app that lives on my home screen.
What's the structure of a typical day like for you?
Typical day… I don’t know if there is necessarily a typical day for me. The thing is that because I work with such a large team, my time is sometimes at the mercy of whoever needs me on any given day. So you’ll typically see my day spread out across one-on-one’s with my team, workshops, or planning meetings. In between all those things I’m probably responding to emails, doing design reviews, coordinating team activities, working on recruiting, or onboarding new team members. Outside of work, I try to hit the gym 2-3 times a week, but also end up trying to go out and shoot 3-5 times a week too. Sometimes the latter can get prioritized over the former.
Best way to stay on top of email?
Oh email! Everyone loves to hate email. My system isn’t all that complicated to be honest. I just have some basic ground rules. Firstly, you need to be proactive with checking your email periodically. Secondly, when you’re checking it, be diligent with the way you’re triaging things.
My inbox has four groups: new emails, emails that I need to respond to, emails that I need to reference later, and pretty much everything else. I also use a ton of labels and am liberal with my use of the “skip the inbox” option. It means that when I check my emails, I can efficiently go through everything in a very systematic way.
But outside of the time that you’re checking your email, I think that it’s incredibly important to just turn off your push notifications for them. Give yourself the opportunity to focus on the task at hand. There’s a big difference between things that you need to respond to in a time sensitive manner, and the things that you need to respond to immediately, and rarely does the latter come up. If it really is that important, people will get in touch with you in other ways. Otherwise, the time sensitive things will be addressed when you check your email periodically through the day.
The emails will be there when you’re ready for them. But while you’re focused on doing something else, like working or having a conversation with somebody, having an email light up your screen and distract you serves no real value. That’s my whole philosophy when it comes to email.
Best career advice you've ever received?
I think the best career advice I’ve ever gotten is a combination of “let it be” and “don’t get comfortable”. “Let it be” comes from my dad, naturally in reference to the Beatles song. What it speaks to is the idea of letting things go that are out of your control. Don’t waste energy dwelling on things that you don’t have the opportunity to impact. Instead, accept those things as limitations or parameters and focus on things that you actually can affect. That’s how you’re going be able to spend your time most resourcefully.
The other piece of advice is “don’t get comfortable”. It’s something my brother once said to me late one evening when I was picking him up from the subway station. It was at a time when I was about a year out of University and doing freelance work. He asked me how things were going and I told him they were fine and that I was growing comfortable with freelance work. He looked at me and said: “Don’t get comfortable. You have the rest of your life after 40 to be comfortable.” That phrase has always stuck with me as a reminder that occasionally, you just need to stir things up, disrupt your world, and just do something that scares you. And if you find yourself too comfortable, you’re really not growing, and you’re really not learning, and a little bit of discomfort is sometimes exactly what you need.
Who would you want to see featured on Ways We Work?
Satish Kanwar. He was not only my partner in crime at Jet Cooper, but he’s also an incredibly successful and well-recognized individual in many other circles. To me he portrays the best marriage of a generalist and an expert that I’ve ever come across. I just have a ton of respect and admiration for his ability to be successful in literally any environment, whether it’s new or familiar to him. He’s currently the Director of Product at Shopify so I’m super thankful that I still get to work alongside him and be inspired by him on a daily basis. I think a ton of people would find a lot of value in getting the behind-the-scenes look at how he works and what makes him tick.