About this episode

My guest this week is Robert Brunner, founder of Ammunition and Chief Designer of Beats by Dre. Robert has designed some of the most iconic products that you and I have integrated into our everyday lives. He built Apple’s very first Internal Design Studio. He designed the Ember mug which we featured on The Startup Story last month.

He completely redesigned how we view retail point of sale systems when he designed the Square card reader, as well as, the Square POS unit. He even led the design of the June smart-oven. But it doesn’t stop there! Do you remember when Lyft drivers had those fuzzy pink mustaches attached to their cars. When Lyft wanted to evolve from the pink stache they reached out to Robert, and the end result were those highly colorful LED amp and glowstaches that sat on the dash of the Lyft driver’s vehicle.

Like I said, Robert has worked on so many iconic products that have impacted all of our lives and his Startup Story episode is amazing!

In this episode, we talk a lot about design and how every single entrepreneur needs to think about user-centric design, regardless of what it is you are working on. Whether you have a technology solution, consumer packaged good, a hardware product, or have a service-based industry. User-centric design also known as user experience, matters to all of us and Robert shares his lifelong learning with us today.

In this episode, you'll hear:

  • How Robert grew up in a very entrepreneurial, and very design driven household.
  • Once Robert left school and started in engineering this pleased his dad but the program didn’t resonate with Robert. So he rebelled and changed course to industrial design.
  • After college, Robert went to work at a design consultant where he learned a lot about how to deal with clients and developed his desire to launch his own company.
  • When working for his company, Luna, he started to work with Apple as a client. In this season, Robert was offered a job with Apple but turned them down. He later joined Apple because he had the opportunity to build Apple’s very first internal design studio.
  • Robert shares how he was at Apple for 9 years but left and went to work for Pentagram, as Pentagram was looking for an industrial design as a partner.
  • In 2007, Robert left Pentagram to start his current company, Ammunition.
  • Robert shares what it was like working with Jimmy Lovine and Dr. Dre to launch Beats by Dr. Dre.
  • How Dr. Dre wanted to create headphones that were made to hear the music exactly how he created it but also it to be designed for a look that was inline with the current generation.

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Intro shout-out: https://wearecapto.com/

Ammunition: https://ammunitiongroup.com/

Robert Brunner’s Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/robertdbrunner/

Ammunition’s Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ammunitiongroup/

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Episode transcript

Robert Brunner: Hi, I'm Robert Brunner. I am founder of Ammunition and chief designer of Beats by Dr. Dre. And this is MY startup story.

Every wildfire began with a spark. Every superhero has an origin story. And every single startup has a moment that they point to as their beginning. And every founder has a purpose that drove them in the midst of all obstacles. That is the startup story.


James McKinney: Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of The Startup Story. Before we jump into this week's episode, I want to read a listener review that came in from our UK audience. It came in from Marchela who's a co founder at Capto and gave the show of five star rating and wrote: "When people asked me who's your coach, I have to start responding with James McKinney, not because I have the pleasure to work with James directly, but because honestly, The Startup Story really acts as my daily mentor, one that gives me so much with each episode, but also one that lets me come up with my own answers and solutions. I absolutely love the podcast. It teaches me so much. It gives me the energy to keep going, especially in my hardest days, and it helps me appreciate that it's okay if I don't have it all figured out yet. I've listened to a lot of podcasts, but no one can beat James' brilliant ways of asking the questions that I, as a fresh entrepreneur, have as I listen to each of his speakers' stories. Honestly, often I listen to the podcast, come up with a question and James asked the exact same thing a few seconds or minutes later. The most recent perfect proof was the episode with Geige Vandentop, which I listened to just last night, an absolute must listen. Thank you James for letting me peek inside the personal unscripted stories, for lifting me up when I need it the most, and for being so approachable, personal, and caring. To all entrepreneurs out there: If you haven't subscribed to The Startup Story yet, honestly do it now. Every episode is a massive, valuable lesson that can truly turn your days and strategies upside down for the better, and connect you with some pretty phenomenal people too. Happy listening and entrepreneuring."

That was amazing, Marchela , and thank you so much for taking time to write it. For everyone listening, what Marchela loves about the show is exactly why I created The Startup Story: to give you a transparent peek into the entrepreneurial journey of someone who has accomplished so much, so that we can understand that the challenges and obstacles we encounter are not unique, they're just unique to us. So for everyone listening, do me a favor and visit wearecapto.com to see what Marcela is working on. We'll include a link in our show notes for easy access. It looks like a phenomenal automation startup, which is fitting because the theme of our Q3 issue of Grindology is automation.

And for those who may not know, Grindology is a brand extension of The Startup Story that delivers founder direct resources that will help ease your grind and fuel your hustle. Every single issue of Grindology is chock full of real tactics from real business builders, not journalists. Within the pages of Grindology, we will be delivering to you tactics and strategies that you can integrate into your business immediately. Our current issue, the Q2 issue, is available right now and is focused on content. In this issue, you'll receive proven tactics on how to leverage existing content that you've already created to drive new business and deliver new revenue. You will hear operational tactics that are used by a founder that saw nearly 400% growth in one year, and he attributes that growth to the tactics he shares in this issue. In our very first issue, our Q1 issue, our premier issue that we launched the brand with, we had a SAS founder lay out exactly how he obtained his first 1000 customers. And then another founder talked about how he leveraged his video to increase sales and lead conversions. I'm telling you, founder direct tactics make all the difference in the world. And that is exactly what you will find in this issue and in every issue of Grindology. Like I said, real tactics from real business builders.

If you want to see what Grindology has to offer, then visit grindologymagazine.com and check out our digital issues. You can see the Q1 issue and the Q2 issue right there at grindologymagazine.com. And then while you're there, make sure to subscribe so that you do not miss our Q3 issue as our theme this quarter is automation. And within this issue will be the playbook on how Lyft built their marketing automation platform, provided by the senior engineering manager who built the platform. Again we don't mess around when it comes to giving you real tactical and practical guidance. So check out grindologymagazine.com. And of course we will include a link in our show notes for easy access.

And just one more thing before we get rolling into the episode. Time is running out on your chance to win Time Magazine's 2020 invention of the year, the Gardyn homekit. In July we featured the startup story of FX Rouxel the founder of Gardyn and to celebrate his episode he provided a full garden home kit to be given away for absolutely free. They sell for close to $800 but you can get one for free because you're a Startup Story listener. All you have to do is visit thestartupstory.co/gardyn, and enter for this incredible opportunity. It's completely free. And in case you're wondering, yes, we will include a link in our show notes for easy access. All right. Now let's jump into this week's episode. I am pumped because it is unbelievable.

05:21 My guest this week is Robert Brunner, founder of Ammunition and Chief Designer of Beats by Dre. Yes, you heard me correctly.The man who has designed every single Beats by Dre product is our guest this week. But it gets so much better. Robert has designed some of the most iconic products that you and I have integrated into our everyday lives. He built Apple's very first internal design studio. He designed the Ember mug, which we featured the startup story of last month. He completely redesigned how we view retail point of sale systems when he designed the Square Reader, the one that we attach to our phones, as well as the Square POS, that kind of sits on the counter on the Lazy Susan turnaround. He even led design of the June Smart Oven. And oh yeah, do you remember when Lyft started their drivers, how they had those fuzzy pink mustaches attached to their cars? Well, when Lyft wanted to evolve from the pink stash, they reached out to Robert. And what resulted was those highly colorful led amp and glow stashes that sat on the dash of the Lyft drivers vehicles. I know you remember them because they were incredible.

Like I said, Robert has worked on so many iconic products that have all impacted all of our lives. And his startup story episode is amazing. He's an incredible designer. Now, to be honest, sitting with Robert to record this episode was kind of surreal, because so many of the products that he has designed are products that are part of my everyday life. I mean, think about that statement for a minute. When we started our individual ventures, didn't we start it because we wanted to impact the lives of those we sought to serve? Now granted, our audiences might not be as global as Beats by Dre or Square or even Lyft. But our ambition to impact lives certainly was. Well, how often do you get to hear directly from someone who created the very products that have become part of your daily routine? Well, for me, and I suspect you, this is that very moment.

In this episode, we talk a lot about design and how every single entrepreneur needs to think about user centric design, regardless of what it is you are working on. Whether you have a technology solution, or consumer packaged good, or a hardware product, or have a service based industry, user centric design, also known as user experience, matters to all of us. And Robert shares his lifelong learnings with us today. But like all startup stories, we need to start at the very beginning,


Robert Brunner: I grew up in what was a very entrepreneurial home, and a very design driven home in its own way. I mean, my father was a mechanical engineer. But he developed, he was at IBM and developed much of the mechanical technology and disk drives, the early disk drives, at IBM and he held several patents. And so I mean, literally if you have anything with a disk drive in it, there's still a piece of my dad in that disk drive because he developed a particular approach to the way the head interacts with the disk that was absolutely brilliant and changed disk drives forever. And then he left IBM with five other guys and started a company to go in competition with IBM. I was about I think 11 at the time. So I didn't really know what was, I knew something was going on. But you know, in retrospect, they referred to them as the dirty half dozen. Nobody ever left IBM to go in competition with IBM at that point. It was I think like 1970 or something like that. So, that was one aspect.

My mother was a, she started her career as a fashion model. She was also a fine artist, a craftsperson. She also started her own children's clothing business. So, you know, I was surrounded by this and when I look back at our home, while it wasn't, you know, like living in the household of Ray and Charles Eames, it was very much a project oriented kind of home. Everything was a project whether my dad was building a boat in the driveway. I always joke that our Christmas tree every year was a piece of performance art, you know, my mother, it was always different, right? And this is the kind of environment I grew up in. And so consequently, I was always out in the garage. I was always building my own bike, you know, and you just absorb this right. And so, that was my early foundation. And in retrospect, you know, I look back and that's well, that's just how I know how to behave, you know making things, creating things, starting things. That's just what was sort of built into my makeup as I grew up.


James McKinney: Now being in the 70s, obviously has super hot time and technology and IBM, now I know IBM had lots of different locations, founders who were attached to IBM across the US. Were you in the Bay Area? Or were you in Portland or Oregon area? Where was this IBM?


Robert Brunner: No, it was in the Bay Area. When my father was at IBM, we lived down in Oregon Hill, which is the southern part of Silicon Valley where IBM had their big center in Santa Teresa. And then we moved right into the heart of it in Santa Clara when he started his startup. So I literally, I mean, I used to goof around in all the orchards that were around us, which one by one were sold off as high tech real estate. They're all now high tech companies, but when I drive by there, it's like I can remember riding my bike through there when I was a kid. But you know, so I saw Silicon Valley grow up around me, which, you know, and you're right, there was so much opportunity, and so much change that I find when I finally got into my profession, it was just a really rich place to be a designer.


James McKinney: But growing up with your dad starting his own company in competition to IBM, you know, because it was such a fast moving and thriving industry and location as well, you probably didn't see a lot of downsides to entrepreneurship, financially, at least. Maybe within competition, because you're going up against IBM, but were you starting to think that maybe you wanted to have your own business when you got older? What was your framework for this is what I want to do when I grow up?


Robert Brunner: You know, I don't know if I had that, you know, I mean, I again I was, like my mom and my dad, just a project person, whether I was doing my bike, building models of carsI took up painting on my own because I wanted to learn how to do it. You know, so that was just sort of the idea of just being creative, right? And expressing yourself in different ways, whether it was building something, or in a more fine art kind of way. And so I didn't really think a lot about that. When I did, it was interesting when I got, you know, I went through high school. I did fairly well. I excelled in math and science. And when I got to the end, my counselor, you know the Career Counselor, who probably knew nothing about a design career, said, "Oh, you know, you're good in math and science. You're an engineer, right?" And I thought, well my dad's an engineer, I'll do that. What he didn't really look at where I got straight A's was in any art class, all my shop classes, anything that involved making something I really excelled at.

So I went out of school and started in engineering, which of course, pleased my dad, you know, he was thrilled to help me with my calculus homework. And I lived at home for a year before moving out. And but it really it wasn't resonating with me as a human being. At least the early coursework in engineering felt very much here's a problem, go out and look up a solution somewhere, find the formula, and show us how you can execute that formula. And I just felt like, I just didn't feel compelled. So I thought I'd rebel. And, my mother again being an artist, and I'd heard of this thing called graphic design which was some form of commercial art, which I knew well here's something in art you might be able to make a living at. So I went over the art building. And it was at San Jose State University. And I walked into the building, and I was immediately presented with this display case full of industrial design artifacts. There were models and renderings. And I don't know how, I must have stared there, it seemed like an hour, I was probably there 10 minutes. And just like okay, this is it. You know, this is it. And I often wonder if I'd gone in another door what would have happened? And but you know, and I made the switch to industrial design, which really pissed my dad off.


James McKinney: But he must have, not like in IBM I mean, he must have worked with industrial designers. He must had a framework for what it is. So for him, was it solely just about you leaving engineering or did he see industrial design as, I don't know, watered down engineering? I mean, because there is engineering behind industrial design.


Robert Brunner: It was the latter. I remember him vividly saying something to the effect of, "The industrial designers are the guys who specify the paint and it usually peels off," is what he said. And you know, I was undeterred luckily, and he grew to… you know, I think where he stood in engineering which was more of a very, sort of the our side of R&D of coming up with these things and then implementation, he didn't have a really in depth understanding of industrial design. They were just again, where he worked these guys that kind of made it pretty. And so but you know, I ended up doing it anyway and he was begrudgingly supportive. But, you know, it was after that in terms of school, I never looked back. Just like I couldn't believe I went from hours and hours of physics homework, to hours and hours of drawing, and just feeling completely engrossed and fulfilled in that, and realizing there was something in my soul that it just it just connected with.


James McKinney: You know, I love that in those college years, that's where it solidified for you, this was what your future held. So when you finish college, what was that first step?


r b: So I started working for a design company early, probably my third year. I first worked for actually a military defense company, as an intern, that was we would… they were doing surveillance equipment for the military. And we would have to mock up the interiors of aircraft and helicopters, and build these really elaborate, amazing full scale models to evaluate the placement of this equipment.


James McKinney: Oh wow.


Robert Brunner: And it always amazed me, we'd spend three months, four months building one, and then there'd be a review, or a couple generals who would come in and grunt, and then we'd tear the whole thing down. But that was my first. Then I got a job in a design firm, a consulting firm, which was what I really wanted to do, and that I started out like everybody in the model shop, you know, sanding paint and doing things like that. But it was really important. Every step of the way, I learned more and more about what this thing was about, and the things you needed to do. And I think it was actually beneficial I started out at the execution end at least within the company, because it really helped me learn an appreciation for construction and detail, and the things I needed to do to build something. So I started there, and then when I got out of school, they made me an offer, which in retrospect was pitifully low, but at the time I thought great, I could live on that, I'll take it. So I worked there for a while. And that was that was the beginning.

But it was, I was very fortunate because the firm I worked for, there was kind of an approach that if you had ability, they kind of left you alone to do your thing, right, sort of. And I was, in retrospect now I'm aghast when I look at if I'd let a kid out of school take on a complex project as a lead designer, but you know, they were paying me a low salary. And I had capabilities, so like great, the margins are really good on this guy, you know. But I really learned a lot and a lot of trial by fire, a lot of mistakes. But in retrospect, it was a fantastic opportunity for me to just dive into things and learn under fire.


James McKinney: When you say a lot of mistakes, were those mistakes as it relates to taking your design into production? Were they made mistakes on understanding the user experience and product design as practice itself? Like, what were some of those mistakes?


Robert Brunner: You know, I think there's a lot of categories. I mean, somewhere in relationships with clients, you know, just not really knowing how to navigate that and convince somebody of something. But a lot was sort of translating a vision or an idea into something that's manufactured. And it takes a long time to really understand that. I mean, I'll say it today, the difference between a good designer and a great designer is a good designer can make one thing really great. A great designer can figure out how to make that great one thing hundreds of thousands of millions of times over right. And the path to getting there, it is one of those 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration kind of things. So that learning takes years and years and years. So I ended up getting beat up quite a bit by engineers and, you know, having to redo quite a bit of work and figure things out late in the process because I didn't have that that understanding yet.


James McKinney: Yeah. You brought up a good point about the idea of having the skill set to help people see the solution you're proposing being the right solution, right, like getting people on board with your idea. And when it comes to design, it's so subjective. I mean, for me when I deal with, and again, when I say designed for myself the context is web and graphic design, I really do try to be hands off and let the creatives do what the creatives do. Like let them come with the first version, and then let me hear what is they're thinking. And then I come in with my thoughts, opinions, tweaks, whatever. But for the most part, we're like 90% there once they come with version one, because on the front end, I've processed through a lot of my thoughts and the emotions, if you will, which I want people to engage with the brand and the imagery and the experience. But for someone on the other side, the creative side, how challenging is it to take someone's thoughts, someone's idea, someone's… because we all have a mental picture in our head of what this product or this web page or this app is going to look like. But it's your job to actually bring some flesh to it. How challenging is it to translate what people think they want versus what you know to be right, and then sell it back to them saying, "This might be different than you expected but here's why all these things are right."


Robert Brunner: That's a really, really great question. I could probably spend an hour on that. Well, I'm going to start, I'll come back to the first part, because the one thing I want to say that I've learned over my career is how important the social aspect of being a designer is. Because of that the thing I mentioned, just a moment ago of being able to make something in the hundreds of thousands or millions, you need an army of people to do that. You don't do that by yourself, right? You need an enormous amount of support from marketing people, engineering people, manufacturing people, operations people. So there's this social element to communicating about your work and contextualizing your work, and selling your work that is incredibly important if you want to get something done. It's something that, you know, I often say that that's something that's not really taught in school of how you actually work within a social structure to get people to align with what you want to do. And it's a challenging, nuanced thing. So that's when it gets extremely important.

I think to the second part of your question, we spend a lot of time in our studio kind of figuring out that first part, and we often characterize it as figuring out what's worth designing in the first place, right? So, you know, it takes a deep dive not only into the client or partner and what their business is about, and what they need to achieve, and who their audience is, and all those things that are important from that aspect, but also looking out into the world. And looking at business and market context, and looking at social and cultural contexts, and sort of building this framework of understanding around this thing you're going to create, and like I said, getting to this point, okay, given all that what's worth designing to achieve that. And so we do a lot of work on that, because we find that it not only leads to better work, it actually makes you much more efficient. You have to be careful, though not to cut out thinking beyond those parameters you create. I always say that, you know, I I'm a big fan of boundary conditions, you know you sort of frame something, but not to hem yourself. And just to know when you've crossed a boundary, because I think that, you know, when we're pushing somethingI think it's important to know, we've just passed a point that's going to make people very scared. And so be cognizant of that doesn't mean you don't do it, but just know that. So I think for us, it's taking all that information in and kind of making sense of it, figuring out what matters, what doesn't matter, and then starting to drive towards potential solutions that address it.


James McKinney: Oh, my goodness, I love it. There's so many, many follow on questions that come from that segment that will play as we get into the Ammunition group, but we have so many chapters to cover until we get to that point. And so you're at this design firm, fresh out of college, you were there when you were in college, but they brought you on. What is the journey from that chapter to where Apple comes into play?


Robert Brunner: Well, there's a step in between. I was there and I started working with a couple designers. One was actually my roommate in college, a guy named Gerard Furbershaw and then another gentleman, Jeff Smith, and we just the company we worked for, they are not around anymore, they were called GVO, was a fairly at that time, a fairly large design office. I think there were about 50 people or so. And, you know, we sort of bonded philosophically as a trio and we were kind of very much not thrilled with the overall approach and philosophy of the office. So and we became, we were sort of viewed as the hot team, but also a thorn in the management side because we were always doing things they didn't necessarily like.

So we just decided one day, we went out for beers, you know classic, like, what are we doing? And let's start our own company, and had no idea, right? And literally almost no money. It's a really great thing, you know, being like young in life and you don't have a lot of obligations. It's like what the hell, you know? Sowe left GVO and started this company called Lunar. There was one shortstop, we first started a company with another individual that kind of fizzled out pretty quickly. And so we took what we built there and started Lunar and ended up building a very robust design studio that continues today. They've been acquired, but Jeff and Gerard continue today. But what happened was, I started working with Apple. And it was really interesting. It was under, it was at the time Apple had a very tight relationship with a company called Frog Design, and a very charismatic, flamboyant, highly regarded designer known as Hartmut Esslinger. Harmut's retired now, amazing, amazing individual. But they had a very tight contract with Apple. A lot of the engineering community wasn't happy with that relationship, which is natural. There's always natural tension. So I was hired to do quote, unquote, engineering work. But it was really design work. They were just kind of it was a little subversive plot to kind of see what someone else could do, and did a few projects. And they went really well.

And so we started, the Frog relationship came to the end, and we started doing this more sort of aboveboard speed stream design for Apple. And one day, I got a call from a headhunter, which was interesting, who was hired by my main contact at Apple but I guess they had a contract with a headhunter. So he called me and said, "We're looking for a new director of industrial design, are you interested?" And at that time, Apple didn't have an internal design organization. There was a few people in the group, sort of managing consultants like me, and trying to keep it all together and communicate internally. And I didn't want to do that. And so I said, "That's great, but I'm not a manager. I'm a designer. That's what I love to do. So thanks but no thanks." Right. And it's kind of interesting, in any in any sort of lens of history, that was probably one of the best things I could have ever done, because they went away for a few months, and then came back and said, "No, we really want you. What would it take?" And interestingly enough, it wasn't money. I was, again, pretty young, and I was going to get more money than I was making then. But it was more of what was the situation. So he said that if any company in the world could have a world class, internal design studio, it's Apple. So if that's what you want, if you let me build that, that I'd be interested in, and they said, "Okay, that's that sounds good. Let's do that."


James McKinney: That's awesome. What's the year on that real quick?


Robert Brunner: That was, let's see 1989. So I took the job. I remember struggling over it still, because the Lunar was taking off and doing really well and I really loved it. It wasn't like I was looking for something else. And I remember just this thought popping into my head, that went something like, you're young enough to make a big mistake so do it. You know, which is true, right? You know, when you when you get older, and you have all these commitments, and kids and house, and all these things, you're more reticent to take risks. I was like, yeah, just what the hell if it fizzles out fine, I'll go back and start another consulting business.So I did that. And it turned out to be an amazing experience, both the aspect working within a corporation like Apple and learning about that, then figuring out how to build an organization, and a culture and a philosophy and then just, you know, working on the products, all those were just fantastic, and just an amazing, amazing part of my life.


James McKinney: So let's give you know, again, obviously, everyone listening to this is going to be aware of obviously what Apple is. We don't have to explain this in any way, shape, or form. But can you give us a framework from again, how people view Apple now versus where it was in 89? Were we still talking the beige boxes that was what Apple had? When did the neon egg shape iMacs come into play? Like where were you in this design picture?


Robert Brunner: I came in in the beige box era. They were at that point, very nice beige boxes but largely the vernacular was very much of the desktop computer but what I came into, and arguably why I was hired was there was a growing push into mobility. Compaq if you remember Compaq, had developed a notebook computer at about the same time Apple was doing their first portable. Now Apple's first portable was the size of a sewing machine, and had a handle about the size of a sewing machine handle, where Compaq's was a notebook, although was sort of dictionary size notebook, right, but still something that you could potentially fit into a bag and not have to… I used to joke when I was first with Apple, I had a Mac portable and I would always have to get a first class seat with my right arm on the aisle so I wouldn't elbow anybody while working on this giant thing. But anyway, what that did is it really galvanized the company around mobility. They really realized that there was going to be significant investment into mobile computing, and everything from that, and it was a very design driven effort.

So the first project when I joined the company was what was called the Powerbook at the time, that became the Mac Book later on, but the first Powerbook family, which was a very, very challenging program. It really, there were so many things going on that the company hadn't done before. And Apple from a human interface point of view had such higher expectation than the sort of Windows and DOS world, and so it really was a very, very challenging project to really figure out what is our first few mobile computers and what would they be like. But crazy, just absolutely crazy in terms of it was very much time to market pressure. While organizations were being built, while technology was being acquired, just so many things going on at the same time. It was like riding water from a fire hydrant, you know, just crazy.


James McKinney: Now were those pressures unique to the, from the perspective that now you're inside this company, producing these designs versus when you were consultant being external, you're still working for Apple, you're still doing product design for Apple, but you're an external. So where the pressures different from that, from being from being inside versus outside? Or was that still the same, but now you are reporting directly and handling manufacturing? Explain some of the nuances of the difference.


Robert Brunner: It was vastly different. And it was actually important to the evolution of what we did. Everybody's in your face, right? When you're outside the company, you know that communication conduit is much more controlled and much more narrow. When you're within it, everybody is on you all the time, from all different disciplines, just you know, because at certain points in any development design is the gating item. So you're being pummeled from everybody right and left in terms of what they want, what they think they need, what they think the product should be, etc, etc. And it actually was great that I got into that right from day one, because it taught me something that in building this studio, I had to figure out how to give it some form of isolation. Because you know, as a designer, you need time. You need time to think, you need time to play, you need time to develop. And if you don't have that, what happens is you don't innovate, you just start doing things that you know how to do because they're predictable and tested and so forth. So that really led me to how I structured the studio, where we set the studio up, how we set it up so we could have that creative piece while still managing all the noise from the corporation. And it was super valuable lesson to be thrown right into that fire pit.


James McKinney: Yeah, no kidding. And how old were you at the time, building Apple's first internal design team?


Robert Brunner: I was about 26 or 27 I think.


James McKinney: That's incredible.


Robert Brunner: Yeah, I know I look back and like God they were insane.


James McKinney: That is incredible. You also probably look back and think man, like the endurance of a 26 year old is what was needed for that.


Robert Brunner: Absolutely.


James McKinney: So what were some of the things that you worked on? Again, back to the Apple journey, as we walk through it, what were some of the designs that you had a hand in prior to leaving Apple?


Robert Brunner: Well, one of the products that actually solidified them wanting to hire me was a product called the Macintosh LC, which was a low cost color desktop computer and it turned out to be the best selling Mac ever at the time. So that was kind of where I started. We were doing a number of things. Something that about Apple at that time is different today is that at that time, it was pretty much Apple versus WinTel, right Windows and Intel. There was this enormous world of people building computers based on Intel microprocessors and Microsoft software. And it was at the time, probably 85-90% of the industry. So here's Apple with its much lauded user interface and approach to design, yet you are taking on not a company or a few companies, but an entire industry, which actually turned out to be a problem. But from a design point of view was great, at least for a while, because we were doing a variety of desktop computers, a variety of notebook computers, a variety of consumer computers, we were moving into mobile consumer devices, we were doing printers and scanners, and just the number of product SKUs were incredible. And so that was that was fantastic.

And we were in addition to doing the mainstream revenue based products, we were also looking forward to where did we think consumer technology was going to go? And how was wireless communication going to change things and all these studies that we would do to kind of get ahead of it. So it was, you know, for five or six years, it was incredibly rich. And it really, it was super challenging. It was interesting, I initially had trouble hiring people. Because there was this perception outside that Apple was, as you said, the beige box company. So if you're an aspiring designer, you don't really want to go into a company just working on, you know, boxes and monitors. So I actually got permission to run a series of ads on the back of Industrial Design Magazine, where we did these concept models, had nothing to do with our roadmap, but we're very provocative and would put them on just the photograph with our industrial design sign off. And that really piqued the curiosity of the industry. And so it became easier to recruit people, but initially, it was hard. But you know, so that was what was going on. It became problematic towards the end of my tenure, because the company couldn't fight all those battles. And that was interesting. WhenSteve Jobs came in, I think he cut the product line by two-thirds, so we're looking at all the areas we're not doing printers anymore, we're not doing so many monitors, we're not, you know, we're just going to narrow it down to what we need to do, which was absolutely the right thing to do. It totally gotten out of control.


James McKinney: Yeah. So back to the SKUs which you've worked on, because you were at Apple for how many years?


Robert Brunner: Internally, I was at Apple for seven. And then I had worked two years before consulting, so working with a company for about nine years.


James McKinney: So again, part of this Apple connection is Beats by Dre. But that's because it's an acquisition, Beats by Dre comes on before the acquisition. And so when was your last year with Apple, per se, before the acquisition, obviously?


Robert Brunner: Last year, internally to Apple was 97. And you know it was before Jobs came back. I always joke that I was between Jobs, because he had left about a year before I joined and then came back about a year after I left. But when I, towards the end of my tenure there, it just honestly just was no fun. The business was not doing well. I was probably spending, you know, three days a week in eight hour meetings of which I only needed to be there like 10 minutes. You just never knew when those 10 minutes were. So it just I felt like I was atrophying as a creative individual and not really learning that much. So I decided I wanted to go back to consulting. My first thought was to open another studio.

And you know, it's funny how things happen. I was, as I was thinking this I was invited to a luncheon at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, and sat next to a gentleman named Kit Hinrichs, who was a partner at the International design firm Pentagram. And Kit is a wonderful man, and very sweet and just said to me, "Hey, we'd like to take on an industrial designer as a partner. Do you know anybody you know? It was a classic nod, nod, wink wink kind of things. And I said, "Well, I'll think about it." And as I was driving home, it actually made a lot of sense to me.

Now, first of all, I don't know if you know anything about Pentagram, but it's a very large international design firm. It's one of the… it's actually the oldest operating, thriving design firm in the world. It's been around for 50 years. And it was founded on this partnership model, so there were five original partners, hence Pentagram, each designer having their own team and their own discipline, but they sort of came together to join a larger enterprise. And it grew over to the point when I was there, there were 19 partners. Now, I had followed the work of one of the founders, Kenneth Grange, who was an incredible industrial designer, British designer, he was he was knighted Sir Kenneth, he was just, you know, an icon. And that was my understanding of Pentagram. So I thought, well, this makes a lot of sense. And it did as a business model, because I could join this larger worldwide operation but still, literally, have my own team, have my own line of business, and run it out of San Francisco. So that was fantastic. I worked with some amazing people, many of which remain close friends today and got to work across a variety things in and outside of technology. And so it's that I spent 12 years there, or was it 10, 10 or 12 I don't remember. But it was a rather amazing learning experience, and allowed me to grow my network, and just really sort of figure out even more what I wanted to do, which led to what I ended up doing with Ammunition.


James McKinney: So let's talk about that time at Pentagram, because you're not there anymore. So, you know, again, you know, 10 or 12 years is a ton of opportunity to experience again, growing the network, you probably worked on some amazing projects during that time. I would assume some iconic projects that we're probably all familiar with. So why did you leave?


Robert Brunner: Well, yeah, it's this evolution of understanding. So yeah, I had a lot of great things to work on. A lot of the work was with Fortune 500 companies, and a lot of corporate work, and very good for cash flow. Large projects that lasted a long time. Andalso had a smattering of startup and early stage companies, which we were working with founders and doing something new, an entirely new, so I had this chance to contrast that work. And what was happening over time with a lot of the corporate work was, again, we do a lot of work, but not a lot of it would see the light of day, or at least see the light of day in the way we intended it. And so it became we do this enormous amount of creative work, some really innovative stuff, the innovative stuff would be deemed too risky, or it would just get watered down and not really make it out in the way we wanted it to.

And so I began to view that work is it's a phrase I like a lot, as an "opportunity cost" that while it seemed great, you're getting a lot of income, at the same time, as you get to the end of the year, and look at the work that you could show or enter in design competitions, or promote, and it was very small. And in my profession, you really live or die by the work that you get out in the world. And so I just began to feel like, Okay, this is not great. And at the same time, the work that I've been doing, there was it was during one of the first tech waves in the first dotcom boom, which there was some hardware component to it. So I began working with a lot of really interesting, challenging smart entrepreneurs who are creating something entirely new, and working with those individuals at the top very closely to create that. And that was really exciting. And the work was outstanding, because we had that ability to craft something together and have a very tight relationship on what we are trying to achieve, as opposed to working for a director and then having to present work up four layers within a company to get approval. So I knew I wanted to go that route.

The second thing, which became very clear to me was that there was a change going on in the understanding of industrial design in the business world. That it was moving from this sort of idea of something that was good to do, good to have products that were well designed, good to have good user experience, good to have good human interface. But moving to this notion of it's a strategic advantage, and in many ways should be a core competency right along with engineering, marketing, manufacturing operations, sort of another leg of the stool, and you could see that starting to happen. And I realized I wasn't in the right position in Pentagram, in that I was a in many ways of boutique within this partnership.There was only one other partner practicing industrial design, and he did something very different than I did. And so I was this island, which there was some collaboration but not enough. So I began to realize that if I wanted to really take advantage or be part of this movement of elevating design to the level, which I thought it should be, I needed to be better positioned and better equipped to do that.

And so I left Pentagram, which is kind of a story in itself that, you know, very few partners ever quit you. I used to joke you either were fired or died. I think there was only one other partner that quit and it was because he wanted to go live with his girlfriend somewhere else. So people were shocked, but they were supportive. And the other thing that worked really well was again, since I was doing my thing, which was different than everybody else's thing, it was really easy to separate my team and clients out. And again, everyone was not happy, but supportive. So left with my team started Ammunition. It was in July of 2007. And started with a couple of key ideas. One was like Pentagram, I wanted to have a multidisciplinary team that is working in not just industrial design, but graphic design and human interface, and packaging, but it was really about doing all the things you needed to do to build a really great product. And doing a really great product is a multidisciplinary exercise. It's not just one, usually one person in a certain narrow field, it's really a group of people. So building that team and group, and that philosophy that's very focused around building not just amazing objects, but amazing experiences. And so that was that was one pillar of it.

The other one, which, sort of going back a little bit when I was at Pentagram I had two things happen. One was I had helped start a company called Fuego. which was a barbecue company. And we'd created this concept for a very modern barbecue, long story short, joined up with a another client to actually set up a company and build this product. And I got a taste of what it, you know, I was on the board of directors, I was the lead designer, I got a taste of what it was really like to be in control. And that was amazing. And it was a very small company. I mean, I think we grew to maybe $10 million in sales a year, it wasn't a big deal. Then the other thing was Beats by Dre, which actually started when I was at Pentagram. And that's what I was introduced to Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre. And it was really interesting. When we started figuring out how we're going to work together, they instantly wanted a business partnership as opposed to a fee for service. And I just wanted to do it like, you know, working with Dr. Dre. Like I don't care if I lose money, right? This is just amazing. But in retrospect, I realized that's just the way they worked. When they're creating a piece of music, you know, and the music was out in the world, people take a percentage of it, whether it's the artists, the manager, the label, everyone has a share in it, and that's the way they view doing business.

So I started this business partnership. And again, it was really a very different experience for me. So I began to realize I had this, you know, another one of those epiphanies where I realized that what I'd been doing as a consultant is creating very valuable intellectual property, but giving it away very cheaply. You know, if I got paid my whatever it was $100 to $300 an hour, what I was charging at that time, and I could pay myself and pay my staff and pay the bills, I was happy as long as… you know, and I got to do a cool project. And I would see that work going out and creating hundreds of millions of dollars of value out in the world. And I could pinpoint my contributions that were adding to that value. And I would hear these stories of peers who wrote some software code, and own the rights to that code, and they were they were living in giant mansions on top of hills in Burlingame. I thought well, maybe we could change that model. And so that was part of Ammunition was sort of taking those ideas and, and forming a studio that was driven around products, building great products and great experiences, but also looking for working in different ways with companies to sort of participate in the success or failure of the things that we created.


James McKinney: That's awesome. So now we're now at the Ammunition group phase. You unpacked a little about what Ammunition group is, but I want to talk about Beats by Dre. Obviously, you mentioned, you know, just the opportunity to work with Dre, it was something that you were chomping at the bit for because I can imagine that would be an unbelievable experience. But when it comes to as a product designer, when it comes to headphones, was the pitch, "we want to redesign headphones?"What did they want to do from the get go that had you so captivated other than they brought Dre?


Robert Brunner: Well, so Jimmy Iovine and Dre are brilliant on their own. Dre, obviously the consummate producer, he's a perfectionist. He will spend an unbelievable amount of time, like up to a year creating a single song and getting it just right. He's incredible. And his thing around what we wanted to do was that, I remember him saying, "People aren't hearing my music." And I wrote that down. And we used to put it on the box, because what he meant by what he meant by that was there weren't products that were built to replicate the sound that he was creating. There was no headphones were being designed with his sound profile in mind, and the sound profile of today's music. Most headphones were you know, he would say, they're designed by audiophiles. And they sound great with Beethoven and Kenny Loggins, but nobody's building headphones that are tuned for hip hop and rock music.

Jimmy, who was very influential to me through that period, I learned so much from him, but he was very crystal clear on the opportunity in that he had a very strong relationship with an audience, with young people. And what he saw was that audience did not have their own audio brand, their own high performance audio brand. You know there was Bose, which is kind of your dad's headphone, Sony which is a big C company. You go down the list, Sennheiser, there just wasn't anything there that his audience could aspire to be part of. And his notion was to use all the techniques that he had created to build cultural equity for artists, but do it for the headphone, and use all the tools and experience he had in doing that. And I thought that was just incredibly refreshing and amazing to see hear someone in business talking in that way.

And it was interesting. They didn't really say, "Go out and reinvent the headphone." They wanted a nicely designed headphone, and they wanted a design partner to do that. But what I figured out early on was when I started just, I do what I always do and just go out and look at what's out there. Of course, I had an understanding of headphones, but just look very deeply and I began to realize that headphones were largely created from a functional perspective, and rightly. They have to sound good, they have to be comfortable, they have to be durable, and there's all these things that make a good product. But no one had ever really, in my opinion, designed it on the head to look good. Everything was very mechanical, right there were your ear cups and extensions and headband, and gimbals and pivot points, and very articulated. I remember this I printed out a photograph of a front view of a headphone, a very popular headphone, and just drew a single line from ear to ear on top of it, and I'm just going to smooth all this stuff out and just make it a very singular shape and a very iconic shape, but something that sits well on the head. We were designing the first, and we still do other products, we always look at what's it going to look like on the body in addition to all the other requirements. And I think that was probably a new idea for headphones and it changed the business. But it was that that relatively simple thought of this is a piece of wearable technology, people should feel good about wearing it, in addition to it sounding good and doing all the other things that it needed. That was really the notion behind the Beats studio, the first product.


James McKinney: When you think the time and place of things, again now people are thinking Beats they automatically probably associated with iPhone, but we're talking before iPhone. Beats by Dre was before or maybe, let's see the original iPhone I guess was 07 or 08, so Beats by Dre is probably right at that same time, I guess.


Robert Brunner: Yeah, it probably was. It was a little before but yeah, that was the other thing that Jimmy had seen it, that he was absolutely right about. And he had worked with Apple and Steve Jobs on a number of things. And one was, he had done this YouTube version of the iPod. And it sold very well. And he had a great experience with that. And but through that process, he realized that, that this, he used to say, "When I grew up, it was all about your speakers. Now it's all about your headphones. The people are listening to music in a very different way." AndI remember, it was really ironic that one of the early meetings, Dre said something like, "I spent all this time crafting my music, and then people go and listen to it through those crappy white earbuds." And it's kind of ironic in retrospect. But, you know, he'd realized that where music was going, it was going digital, it was going mobile, it was going to be in your pocket. And so the headphone became an extremely important thing, and not just to listen, but to be out in about, and in the public view. So that sort of understanding was, again, one of the things that led to Beats and why I think one reason it was so successful.


James McKinney: It's so funny, I mean, for as game changing as the iPod was, and for all those who are listening, I mean I'm 43 and I remember the first iPod, I remember the U2 iPod, I had it. And I remember how it was such a badge of honor to be able to carry so many gigs of my music on this device, in my car or on my person. But because of the iPhone, it's almost like we've forgotten about the iPod. Because the iPhone is now that iconic piece of technology that has changed everything. But if we really go back it, it kind of is the iPod that really changed a lot of things. And so when I asked you that question about, you know, it was Dre before iPhone, it's because I forgot about the iPod entirely in that in that mix.


Robert Brunner: Yeah, for me, the iPod was amazing. I had actually started with mp3 players before that. I had this thing that was I forgot, I think Creative Labs made it, it was this disk drive, a huge thing that you could rip your songs onto. I would put music on one of two ways. I'd either transfer a CD and I'd have to go back and rename every song because it was always just track one, two, three. Or I would illegally download it through Limewire or Napster or something like that, right. But you know, but it was a mess, right. And all of a sudden, you know, the brilliance of the iPod was it was the device but also the ecosystem of the iTunes Store. And how you acquired content and moved it on to the device, and it just smoothed everything out. It made it so that almost anybody could do it. So I remember my wife, we weren't married at that time but I got her one of these Creative Labs things and she just thought it was the worst thing in the world. It was so much work to recreate your music library on it.


James McKinney: Having been inside of Apple and obviously at this point you were out a decade. So a lot of things change in that decade you were gone. But when the iPhone came out, was it shocking to you having seen where Apple wanted to go with mobility? But again, I know you're before Jobs, so maybe you didn't get a glimpse into those things. But was it a shocking to you as a designer, an industrial designer, as it was for the rest of the world who weren't designers?


Robert Brunner: I was surprised. I remember I got asked by I think it might have been Wired magazine to do some concepts about what the future of Apple could be.So we did just some renderings, you know, and it was all editorial and we were supposed to be looking at what we thought things Apple could do and one was a phone. I remember we did the phone with a click wheel because he thought that was this… we really didn't you know sort of, and in retrospect I should have known better because you know we had worked on a variety of touch based products and so forth within the company. But I hadn't anticipated the interaction model of the iPhone and being as incredibly well thought out and resolved at it is. I remember it funny, shortly after, I won't name names, but another large consumer electronics company approached us at ammunition to do a UI for their smartphone, like the iPhone, and they wanted it done in three months. And I remember saying, "Have you used an iPhone? I mean, have you ever played with the nuance and sophistication of that interface? And something you think you can replicate in three months?" And they're just like, "Yeah, that's the project," and we just declined. It's like there's no way you're going to be successful at that. It was an amazing, amazing piece of development.


James McKinney: One of the reasons that I like asking that question, and again, for my listeners listening, the reason that I'm getting this opportunity even to speak with Robert is because we had Clay with Ember on a few weeks ago. And the Ammunition group designed the Ember mug. And so we talked with Clay, and I had mentioned to him how there was such an Apple feel to the Ember mug, just the sleekness of the design and the curves, and the subtleties of light and all the things. And I always said, from the time I came across the Ember mug, this is the Apple of coffee mugs. And he says well, it's funny, you mentioned that because the original designer, and he mentioned some connections to Apple and, and so his episode goes out, your team reaches out and say, "Would you like to talk with Robert? " I'm like, "Oh, my gosh, yes, I would. "

And so I've been looking forward to this, especially from a design perspective. He's an inventor, so I asked a similar question to him as an inventor. But I want to ask this question to you from a designer. When it comes to the user experience, we think of software, we think of the simplicity of navigation a lot of times. But if we really talk about and think about what user experience is, there is such a product based application to the idea of user experience. And for someone like yourself who is in this world, who has worked with some amazing products, not just Ember mug, and not just Beats by Dre, but June Oven. And there's so many other products that you've just, it's just so beautiful and so simple. When you, from a design perspective, think about this concept of user experience, a lot of my listeners, really just put this framework into a software design. Like what is again, the navigation, the wheels, the clicks, how simple is it to get to where you want, the checkout process when it comes to Shopify and e commerce. But from a product perspective, how deep is this category of user experience?


Robert Brunner: That is a really great question, another one, and I think it's an important one, and it is interesting. And I'll start with that kind of at a very high level, what really has always fascinated me about design and industrial design, what I do, and it is the relationship between people and things. If you think about it, as a species, we are fascinated with things, objects. We surround ourselves with things that we like, or things that we identify with, or things that say something about us. The car we drive and the clothes we wear, the shoes we wear, the bike we ride, all these things, we get the house you live in, all these things, all these physical things are extremely important to us. And I've always been fascinated as to why and why do people like one thing over another? And why do people feel excitement or gratification, or contentment when using something? And so that, so I've always viewed user experience in that sort of bigger context.

It was it was interesting recently, we were submitting a proposal to a company on a hardware program, but we referred to, you know, part of it as user experience. And they made us change the terminology because in their organization that's solely software, and it was going to confuse people. So I changed it to experience design, because, you know, in the context we look at it at Ammunition, yeah software user experience as part of that. But again, the way I look at products is fairly holistically and when you buy something, you don't separate stuff out.

I used to do when I used to speak publicly, I used to have this sequence that I did that was I thought really instructional and if you took the iPhone, you start with a picture of the iPhone next to its beautiful package with its user interface, and the Apple logo and everything, and you start taking those things away, right? You take away the UI, and you take away the package and you take away the Apple store, and you take away the logo and what are you left with? You're left with a beautiful object, but it's not an iPhone. All those things come together that define what how you feel about this thing you carry with you all day. And that's how you build a really successful product is by looking at all those things through the lens of human behavior in the human condition. And so that's the way we view user experience which is a little broader and a little different, but I think for what we do very, very important.


James McKinney: I love that. You know, for brands that come to you for whether it be a concept they have for a new Smart Oven, whatever the case may be, for a new vacuum cleaner, new dust buster, a new insulated water bottle, like a hydroflask type thing, for those who come to you with these ideas, and these concepts is part of the expectation for you, and I'm talking physical products, specifically, part of the expectation for you, is that, okay, we're not going to just design this product for you. We want to cover from packaging all the way through because it's part of the design, or will you solely just do the product design?


Robert Brunner: Yeah, we will. I mean, in many times, we don't have that opportunity. That's another reason why we like working with early stage companies so much in that we very often get to do that, plus even the identity, and really building out an overall product strategy and roadmap so you get to really craft that in a way that is compelling. So yes, we'll do projects where we're very focused on the design of the product, and we'll collaborate with the software design group, and collaborate with their brand identity and packaging team and so forth. And yeah, of course, we do that, but where we really, I think, excel at is when we're able… We often say what our goal is to design as much of it as possible. And, and, and it's not just, you know, a sort of selfish, we want to control it, or let's get as much revenue out of this as we can, it's really this notion of creating a seamless experience. And again, if you think about the things you as a consumer find rewarding, you know, when you get the package, and the package is well thought out, and it presents the product well, and it tells you how to operate it. And you know, there's a whole…when the when the product breaks, what do you do, what happens? All those things lead to how you feel about a brand.


James McKinney: Again, I mean, when I go back to the Ember mug, like, it was just, my wife was not the most technically inclined, it was take it out of the box, pour coffee in it, it takes over. Like it was as seamless of a user experience as possible. And when talking with Clay he talks about how integral you and your team were, to getting it to that point. And so I'm just amazed at how the brains of people like you, how they work when it comes to thinking through the consumer interaction with the piece and the product and the object. When you think of your, we're not going to say life's work, because you have so many products you worked on, when you think in the last couple years what are some products that not because of the engagement, not because the people involved, but because of the actual product, the end result, what are some that to you are really those flagship products?


Robert Brunner: There's a couple products you mentioned, which I think have been very important to us. And there were the June Oven, and the Ember mug. And those helped crystallize something for me, which is a little bit counterintuitive as a designer. As a designer, you're in many ways talk to reinvent everything. And I began to realize, I'd seen really innovative design fail. And one of the reasons, one of the key reasons was people could not understand it, how it fit in their lives. And so I remember when we first started talking to June, we were doing they were interviewing us to see if we wanted to join their team. And they asked me what I would do. And I had said, "Look, this thing needs to be an oven. A really, really amazing oven. But it needs to be an oven because people if we make it a sphere levitating on a magnetic cushion, it may win a lot of Design Awards, but it's going to scare the shit out of people really."

You know, and I just I formed this belief that in many ways, if you're building products, you want to be successful and have an impact in people's lives, you need to give them a starting point to draw them into it. And that was the same thing with the Ember mug. The idea of a travel mug or your classic coffee mug, they're very well established ideas in people's heads. So if we created something with an entirely new way of holding it, again, it's going to get a lot of design press, but it probably won't be successful commercially, because people have that starting off point. So they understand it, it's a mug, oh wait a minute this is a self heating mug. Oh, wait a minute, I can control the exact temperature I want. Well, wait a minute my coffee tastes just as good an hour after I poured it right. So you create this entry point for people to move into the technology. And I think those were both examples of that of doing really amazing new things, but in a form that people could understand and move right into without a lot of resistance.


James McKinney: I love that.


Robert Brunner: Another one, which is I think, I personally love both as an object and its impact was the Square stand that we created for Jack Dorsey's company Square. And it really changed the face of small business, right? When you walk into, we did the Square Reader, the one that plugs into the phone, which was also important, because it in many ways, democratized the use of credit cards. So it used to be really a lot to get up on, being able to take credit cards for a transaction and the brilliance of Square was you just had to sign up, you got this reader, you could swipe. If you're a guy selling paintings on the street, you could take someone's Visa card, right, it was amazing. And then we went to retail, you know, this was a case where we did completely re architect the cash register, because it was really an antiquated concept.

And so you know, what was interesting for us about Square was this transactional behavior, right? With It started with the reader for the iPhone in that you would swipe the card, and then the person selling the product would hand the phone to you for you to sign right. So there was this sort of exchange. So we replicated that in the, we put basically a lazy Susan on the bottom of the Square stand. So you would swivel it around, the person would swipe their card, and then sign, and swivel it back. And so it made that engagement level work so much better, and then out of it created this very iconic form that when you walk into a coffee shop, and you see a Square stand there, you will immediately think, okay, these people are on it right there, they're very forward looking. And so it in many ways really changed the face of retail.


James McKinney: I love that, love it. You know a lot, as we were talking about just some of these products and how game changing they were from a design perspective, a user experience perspective, I'm going to say a user expectation perspective now. Like now as consumers, we have an expectation of how certain things are going to function and how simple things should be. And really, it does, and you please correct me if I'm attributing this evolution to the wrong person, but it really does get back to Steve Jobs. As far as the minimal thinking and the simplicity of design. And again you being you being an expert in design, if you know of a different designer which should get attribution, please, you know, educate us and inform us on this. But do you ever see, does there reach a point of what's the word I'm looking for? Where it reach a point where we really can't get much more simple than where we are now? Like, are we where we are going to be for the rest of our lives in product design as far as simplicity and execution? Or is there more to be gained?


Robert Brunner: I think there's a lot more to be gained. I think we're at a point where you were dead on and that as consumers, our expectations are high on how things should work and how things should behave, and how they should integrate into our lives. And you're right that Steve Jobs was an absolute visionary in the partnership that he created with Johnny was amazing, and created some objects that have changed the course of the world forever. It's just incredible history. But it also raised expectations across a lot of a whole variety of points from interaction, product design, execution, quality, integration across services, all these things that just work, and work well. And I think that has set the table stakes for how technology fits into people's lives.

That said, there's limitations with a four by six screen, right? There's limitations with battery life, there's limitations with how these things interact with other things throughout the world. All those there's this constant movement on towards simplifying and creating seamlessness across multiple things, and then how people interact with them. And you know, we're starting to see the impact of voice. We're starting to see more of an impact of gesture and control, we're pretty soon going to see what augmented reality does. And I think it'll be interesting to see because there'll be, of course, a lot of whiz bang exciting things that AR and VR produce. But ultimately, if something will boil out of it, it's just very useful. And it always happens that way. It starts out with kind of an overload, but eventually the things that fall out are very, that are very useful, stay and stick with us. So I think there's still a lot for design to do in figuring out how to make those technologies and that approach usable and understandable and desirable for people.

You know, I used to say that there's this tree that you want to get to. The first is usability, right? So you should know how to use something, you should be able to pick it up and use it. Otherwise, it's not worth much. The second is usefulness, it should do something in your life that has value, that's useful to you. But the tier you really want to get to is desirability, right? That I want to include that thing in my life. Because you know, how it works, what it does, how it makes me feel, all these things, right. And then so that's as designers, we're always working our way up that tree. And as we look at new technologies, and how they can impact people's lives, and sort of building things that are not just usable, but really desirable.


James McKinney: I love that. You know Robert, this has been a joy. Again, I want to get to our final three questions. And that first one has to do with this idea of entrepreneurship. You've worked with some amazing startup founders, you've worked on some incredible products, you've seen how founders think and how they adjust, and you are a founder yourself with the Ammunition group. So do you think anybody can be an entrepreneur? Or is there a certain makeup for it?


Robert Brunner: I think that's one of those "yes and no" things. You know, I think anyone can but there are some requirements of things you have to have. Of course you need imagination and vision, right? You have to be able to see something out there in the future that you know you need to get to, and then you have to have the perseverance and commitment to get there. And have thick skin because along the way, you're going to have so many people telling you you're wrong or giving you bad advice. And so you have to have thick skin. I think you have to be a problem solver, and really relish that the notion of identifying and solving problems. You have to have empathy, you have to understand, especially if you're creating products, you have to understand humans and have empathy towards humans. If you don't, you won't be able to do. And your ideals need to be very solid and clear.

But I think there's one thing that it's something my wife, Elizabeth, tells me is one of my strongest attributes, and it's the ability to manifest. I think all people have this, they just may not recognize it or do it, you know, I think people have the ability to see something that they want to have, or want to achieve, or want to do, and chart a course to manifest it. And Elizabeth says I just do that all the time. I decide I wanted to build this amazing house, had no idea how to get there. And you know, four years later, we have this amazing house, right?


James McKinney: That's awesome.


Robert Brunner: Or I wanted to, you know, leave the Pentagram to start Ammunition and… so it's just, but I think that's one of the most important things that as an entrepreneur, you need to recognize and cultivate is this ability to manifest and do. Some of those manifestations are short, but some are very long. So I mean, you take years and you just, you need to stay on that path and do it. So I think that's, I think anybody can but not everybody is in touch with all the things you need to have to do it. So and some of us who are in are very aware that we have that, or it just naturally comes out of us, have a probably a more effective path and getting there.


James McKinney: I love it. Absolutely love it. You know, one of the things that I also like to ask my founders is around this idea of community, gratitude. And the reason I asked that question of my founders, this next question my founders, is because there's this idea that entrepreneurship, especially in the startup world, is very much done in isolation. You know, you on your couch pounding away code, and then all of a sudden, you're an overnight success. Because the media calls it an overnight success, not the seven years leading up to it that were all building to this moment. And the way I tried to break that down is by just allowing my audience to hear from these, my successful founder guests like yourself, just who they look to with gratitude for their contribution to their journey. So when you think back to your personal journey, from childhood to now, who are the people that you look to with such immense gratitude for where you are today?


Robert Brunner: Ah, well, I you know, I mentioned my mother and father and they, of course, were great parents, and of course, supported me in what I wanted to do. I said they weren't always happy, but you know, what they did, and I don't know if it was on purpose or just who they were, they instilled this creativity and curiosity in me. I think through the things that they did, and the things they encouraged me to do, and I'm always grateful for that. I can always think back of, you know, as a kid and the things I saw and learned, at how I draw on those today, and recognize my parents for that.

I think I have, this is kind of a very broad answer, but I have a lot of gratitude to almost all the designers I've worked with over the years, have worked for me. And whether that's Johnny Ive, or Paula Scher at Pentagram, amazing icons that are just unbelievably talented, or the interns that we have working in our studio who have this incredible vibrancy and energy and naivete that I just find so refreshing and inspiring. In a way, I feel like I feel gratitude for just having a job that I can associate with really creative people, and who are doing things that I find amazing and inspiring. It's just, it keeps me going.

I mentioned Jimmy Iovine, you know, those 10 or 12 years I spent working with Jimmy very closely were very challenging. But there was, I realized something about Jimmy and you know, who is arguably one of the most iconic music producers and executives that's ever been. He used to drive me and bust me and challenge me and I used to, like, what is this guy trying to do to me? And then I realized what was going on is that he saw me as an artist, just like, I'm not going to put myself in the same category, but you know, just like Lady Gaga or Mary J Blige, but he viewed me through that lens. And he felt part of his role was to get the best work out of me possible. And, you know, and that pressure, and then combined with his sort of understanding of, he really opened my eyes to the notion of culture, and how art and commerce intersect at culture. And that was something that Steve Jobs really understood as well, right, this sort of connection between art and commerce coming together and culture, and how you really need to understand that and work with that. And so Jimmy's strong belief in me was, it was just incredible.

And then, you know, and I'm sure every person you ask this probably says this, but you know, my wife, Elizabeth, who's of course, an amazing supporter and cheerleader, but you know, I think what's probably most important is she sees things in me that I don't, both good and bad. And is always reminding me that. And actually I started ammunition in many ways, because of her. We were married, we were on our honeymoon in Nicaragua. We were sitting on a beach, and I was lamenting about Pentagram and just, you know, I wanted to do something different. And she just turned to me and said, "I'm really tired of hearing this from you, can you just get off your butt and go start your own business? Just do that when we get back. Just do that."


James McKinney: I love it.


Robert Brunner: And I did. I think to me, again, a lot of people probably say that. But I think having an individual in your life who understands you almost better than you do. And supports you in what you do is incredibly powerful. And I'm really grateful to have that.


James McKinney: Oh, my goodness, that was outstanding. And our final question, with our time with you, and again, I'm just I am so grateful for the time you've afforded me and my Startup Story listeners to hear your journey and your story. But for that final question, as much as I would love to allow all my listeners some time with you direct, just to have coffee chat with you to unpack your brain directly, maybe even ask a very specific startup challenging question for you and what they're doing, it'd be unreasonable of an ask at this scale. And so I kind of reverse engineer it by allowing you to speak directly to them. And so whether it's the audience member who has a startup, but they're frustrated with maybe just they're not finding high user retention, because of their design of product, maybe they're having capital issues. Maybe they're having consumer acquisition issues, or maybe it's those the person who has a nine to five, and it's a great job, but they have this book full of dreams and ideas in which they want to try to execute on but they got some narrative in their mind. Like, you know, I'm too old or I'm married with kids and a mortgage, I can't go take the risk of being a startup founder. Whatever the persona is, what would you say to them if you were having a coffee chat with them?


Robert Brunner: Well, I've had a lot of those chats lately, because you mentioned my wife, she's started a new company. She's a fashion designer, and she's started a children's clothing company called Stereotype Kids, it's taking all kinds of elements and putting them together in a way that's unique. It's inspired by our boy /girl twins. But she's bootstrapping this startup. And she's getting it going. And I end up being an advisor quite a bit. And there's something I keep saying over and over to you is just this simple statement, always keep moving forward. It's really easy to get overwhelmed, and really easy to see all the things you have to do, and all the hats you have to wear and all the things you have to make happen. It's just take them one at a time and just keep moving forward. You know, it may not always fit the timeline you want, but just always be progressing. And don't let yourself get bogged down because I think that's what happens to a lot entrepreneurs is there are so many things that need to be done, that you become overwhelmed. But the most important is just okay, what's next? Okay, let's do that. That's it, just keep moving forward.

And you know, even if you fail, the next thing you do will benefit from that failure. And that's something to remember it is not, this business you're starting is probably not the last thing you will ever do. Maybe if you're lucky, and it goes through the roof, it may be the last thing you ever have to do, but most likely it's not. And you will take all those experiences and put them into the next one. So just don't become consumed with failure. You have to just keep moving forward and progressing.

And the last thing is something that I practice a lot is I asked a lot of people for their thoughts and advice. And I really like to hear different perspectives. That doesn't mean I'm going to use them all. And you have to be an editor. I think it's really important to go out and talk to people and say, "What do you think? What would you do?" and then see what really resonates and in your heart and know what's right and what's not. And you can throw away the stuff that doesn't matter. But out of that conversation, there'll be one insight there, that is incredibly credibly powerful and changes the course of what you're doing. So have advisors, tell people about what you're doing, practice your pitch on them, do it constantly, because you will learn so much not just from them, but by yourself and how you're trying to communicate what you're doing. So you may not always like the information you get back. But there may be something in there that becomes incredibly important. So I'd say just get out there and utilize your network to help you in whatever way you can.


James McKinney: Once you had a few moments to process all the value Robert Brunner brought us in this week's episode, please hit me up on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Instagram and share with me your thoughts on this episode. And if you've been around The Startup Story for any length of time, then you know how much emphasis I put on the idea that entrepreneurs support other entrepreneurs. So with that in mind, follow Ammunition on Instagram. Their handle is @AmmunitionGroup. And also make sure to follow Robert's personal Instagram as well, and that's @RobertDBrunner. On his personal account, he showcases his work as well as thoughts on design there rather frequently. So make sure again you follow those. And we'll include a link to both of those accounts in our show notes for easy access. And we talk about it all the time, capturing awareness is so challenging, so let's make sure to show up for Robert and the Ammunition Group by following @AmmunitionGroup and @RobertDBrunner on Instagram. And now for my personal ask.

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August 10 2021
Robert Brunner, founder of Ammunition and Chief Designer for Beats by Dre

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