Humans of New Work

Jonathan Courtney

Co-Founder AJ&Smart

#InnovationCulture

Monday April 3rd, 2017
Monika Jiang


For Jonathan, ‘follow your passion’ is a hollow phrase. In his view, it’s an excuse to procrastinate, waiting to find that one thing you’re passionate about instead of spending your time usefully. As the co-founder and CEO of the Digital Product Design studio AJ&Smart, constantly taking action and trying new things is the key to finding what works, and ultimately finding the truly innovative ideas. When Jonathan arrived to Berlin almost ten years ago, he was still holding fast to the idea of becoming a famous filmmaker, or, failing that, a rock star. As fate or random chance would have it, he met Michael, who was in the middle of his own popstar career at the time, and they decided to found a company as a means of financing their artistic productions. What started out as a practical necessity, has, after five and a half years, become quite successful company that is gaining momentum every day. “It took us four and a half years to get any momentum”, Jonathan adds. In the early years of AJ&Smart, Jonathan experienced many contrasting understandings of ‘work’, which resulted in the mindset that he now lives every day:
“Getting started is more important than doing it right. We founded, because we had to. It took us two years to turn it into a proper business, but that’s better than just talking about things you would love to do, or to wait for the right idea, the right people or funding. That’s probably the best way to procrastinate.”
The difference between seeming innovative and actually being innovative is, as Jonathan points out, a difference that many established companies struggle with. In his view, what matters most is the culture, the environment and the actual work itself.
“What doesn’t work is an innovation lab. Don’t separate into silos or “digital hubs”. Especially in Europe, there is a major, company-wide cultural problem. What actually starts to work is when teams inside the company get the permission to become autonomous. That’s when they get to choose what they really want to do, put their own team together and have the freedom to fuck up. This experience and self-responsibility, acting like mini-startups, will spread the excitement into the other teams.”
Creating an adaptive environment is the key to win the War for Talent, Jonathan says. The workplace needs to suit different kinds of personalities, and give them the freedom to work the way they work best. To Jonathan, skill, like design, is only a commodity that can be learned and practiced.  
What really counts is the willingness to grow and to change, to try new things, and to build long-term relationships.
         
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