Some people are content to see where life takes them, others are more interested in setting the course – Luke Tengstrom is someone who seems to do a little of both. He credits his success as a service designer at Fjord, and the recent launch of his own business, Karma Pillows, to luck and keeping an open mind; however it’s clear that it also has a lot to do with his intelligence, talent and willingness to put in the work.
The Fjord office in Melbourne is an immediately welcoming space. Stepping off the elevator you’re greeted by a light-filled lobby with concrete steps that lead down to a small cafe – which also serves a dual purpose as a seating area (the stairs, not the cafe). In fact, most of the spaces in this office have more than one purpose – but considering Fjord’s design focus that’s a given. The office, shared with Fjord’s parent company Accenture as well as a few other small companies they’ve acquired, is incredibly dynamic. You can feel a buzz in the air as you walk past post-it note covered walls, colourful meeting rooms and interactive boards. The place has a bold personality; it’s clear that innovation lives here.
Luke Tengstrom can usually be found in the development lab working on strategy. The small space is filled with all sorts of interesting technical projects, including a digital mirror that will tell you a joke “as long as you ask nicely” and other intriguing gadgets. Outside the lab, there’s plenty of work going on in traditional desk spaces and multi-use rooms, but what we didn’t expect to find was a tucked away room that functions as a no-work “Zen zone”. Inside the design is totally different to that of the rest of the space: a set of hanging chairs, plush couches to relax into and airy curtains all come together to generate a feeling of calm.
“The Zen zone was designed to allow us to take a break from the day if we need to … although all the chair options give me a little anxiety,” laughs Luke. “It’s an awesome culture. Working at Fjord is almost like running a small business – they really let you own it. You decide how and when you want to work … which stems from Fjord’s human centred design methodology.”
Luke’s journey to Fjord is an interesting one, and although Luke plays it down to “luck and being on the lookout for new opportunities” it’s obvious that it also had a lot to do with his talent and intelligence. Growing up in country New South Wales and watching his parents build a small wholesale business from nothing was Luke’s first introduction to the hard work and dedication it takes to “make it”. It inspired him to aim high – which paid off when he received a scholarship to study and board at one of Melbourne’s top boarding schools; after which he began working at a bank while trying to figure out what he wanted to pursue in tertiary study. Two years after graduating he enrolled in a Bachelor of Business (Marketing) degree at RMIT University.
“I really started to fall in love with marketing and I was attracted to RMIT because of all of the Work Integrated Learning aspects,” says Luke. “It’s a bit of a long-winded story, but it’s kind of how I got to where I am today; I did an exchange with the College of Business to the University of Toronto and as a part of that we did a weekend in New York. While we were there I walked past the Google building and I just thought ‘that’s where I want to be’, and that night I looked online and saw that they had internships going at the Sydney office.”
It may sound simple but the application certainly wasn’t. The six-month-long process involved several interviews and selection tasks, and though Luke doesn’t expand too much on the details it’s clear that it was vigorous. “It was pretty crazy, there was something like 7000 applicants and only five spots for business-focused internships … I think it was my Work Integrated Learning that got me through the door because the other business interns were all MBA students and much older than me as well,” says Luke.
From there it doesn’t take long to connect the dots. Google and Fjord were sharing an office in Sydney at the time and, through a mentor from a previous internship, Luke was introduced to a recent hire of Fjord’s who had also just made the move to Sydney. After hearing about the work they did and taking a tour of the offices Luke was keen to get involved, so upon completing his internship with Google he moved on to another internship with Fjord and as Luke says: “the rest is history.”
Luke has now been with Fjord for just more than three years and has recently made a sideways move from a business designer role to a service designer role. Fjord as a whole operates as a service that people hire to come up with new ideas for innovation within their company. Luke’s new position is essentially to “think about the user experience and come up with solutions around that” by using research methodology to understand how humans think.
However, although Luke admits to loving his current job, he also acknowledges that he does miss the fast-paced environment of the small business his parents run. “I’ve always wanted to start my own business,” says Luke. “But I understand that you just don’t get there overnight, and that’s why we’ve started Karma Pillows while we’re still working full-time.”
The best advice Luke offers to others is the best advice he has been given: “You either come up with an idea like Uber, and you’re a unicorn if you can do that, or you look at other models that have been successful overseas and bring those to Australia” – which is exactly how Karma Pillows came about. Luke and his business partner, Elijah Oxenham, looked at brands in Australia with marketing they admired, like Frank Body and HiSmile, and thought about how they could combine that with the high-end online mattress companies they’d seen overseas. The result? A high-end online pillow company with a social conscious.
Officially launched in late 2017, Karma Pillows was inspired by the desire to “get a good night’s sleep” and it seems that the idea has really resonated as the small start-up has hit the ground running. But for Luke, the most rewarding aspect is being able to give back to the community, as one of the key concepts for Karma Pillow is that for every two pillows purchased a free pillow is provided to a person in need.
“Starting Karma Pillows has taught me a lot: how you get a product, how you find a market, how you market it and then all the hidden work and costs – you think it’s so simple but it’s not,” says Luke. “A lot of my job [at Fjord] is testing desirability from a customer point of view and asking will you buy or use this? So the two jobs really feed into each other … and I think the future of work is letting people pursue their other interests as well.”
We recently visited Luke at Fjord’s office in Melbourne and had a chat about the future of work and how to best position yourself for it.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned so far
Start before you are ready. Whilst there are plenty of resources out there to help you start your business, nothing is as effective as having a go and learning from mistakes.
How important has networking been to your success?
I don’t believe in networking as people limit it to formal events. I try to set criteria for the people I aspire to be like and always be looking for those people in everyday life. Using this technique I’ve met brilliant mentor and friends who have shaped by success through advice and inspiration.
What is it about service and business design that you love?
I enjoy most that I get to spend a lot of time travelling and speaking with people face to face doing ethnographic research and then using innovative methods to solve the issues people have. Most of all I enjoy being able to learn and fail; not being restricted to old school thinking.
How has starting your own business changed the way you approach work?
I run a business whilst working full time. I don’t have plans to change this in the future as they highly complement each other and I believe this is the future of work. Starting a business has taught me hands-on skills like coding that I bring to my corporate job, whilst working in corporate has taught me to broader skills like financial analysis that I can apply to my own business.
If you could give your 20-year-old self three pieces of advice, what would they be?
1. Don’t wait for the ‘big idea’. Ideas are only 5% of starting a successful business. Execution is everything!
2. Learn visual design skills, unless you can communicate your idea or product to an audience, it is worthless. Visual design is the key to making people stop and listen to what you’re trying to say.
3. Invest in Bitcoin – you would’ve been a millionaire by now 🙂