ot every entrepreneur dreams of building a unicorn. Entrepreneurship looks different for everyone, and Mariana Gutheil’s journey has been one of a kind. After a successful career in communication, she started studying strategic design, and her passion has led her on an interesting path involving education, collaboration and the founding of No One, a strategy, design and digital-product global company that translates user and data insights on human behavior into powerful solutions.
How did you get into entrepreneurship? Was it something you’ve always wanted?
A well-known creative school called Perestroika, from Rio Grande do Sul, was expanding and invited me to open a school in São Paulo, where I was living at the time. I helped set up that operation; the process lasted one year.
It was very important because I understood I could do it, although entrepreneurship had never crossed my mind before then. It wasn’t something I wanted, it wasn’t what I dreamed of. This gave me the experience of starting a business from an existing idea. The first business I founded as an entrepreneur was No One, but that was unintentional.
How did No One start?
I had come back to Brazil after living a few years abroad. I had just finished a career of almost fifteen years in communication. I loved communication, it was such a creative market, but I felt some discomfort due to the narratives we had to create… We had to invent stories to elevate the product’s narrative to something bigger than it was. That’s how I got into strategic design. I was looking for tools and methods that would help me design better products and services, things that people actually needed and wanted, so that the narratives would come along easily, and I went to Germany to study it further. I returned to Brazil and set up Perestroika, but I was missing something. It felt like what I wanted to do didn’t exist yet.
One day, I was teaching a class on a course called New Ways of Thinking, exploring new approaches to thinking and doing and creating: mental models, new work, creative processes, etc. I was lucky to have students from cool companies, and one of them was a director of trade marketing at Coca-Cola. She said, “Design as a thinking approach is incredible. I want to take it into Coke.” And I looked at her and said, “I’ve never done this. I’ve done many design-thinking projects, with a design approach as a focus, but I’ve never taken it into a company as a framework. But if you agree to embrace it with me, I embrace it, and let’s go.” And she said yes.
That sounds like a very special moment.
It was. I had the client embracing the project and embracing me. Entrepreneurs naturally have to embrace something, but usually they need to sell the idea. In this case, the sale happened from the client, so to speak.
At the time, I called someone to do the project with me. This person ended up becoming my cofounder. And before we finished this first project, we already had another project for Coca-Cola, and then a project with Natura. Before finishing that one, we were working on something with Google. The business went on.
I delivered the Perestroika operation working and profitable. I learned the basics of running a business: income, cash flow, expenses. It’s difficult, but not that much. I left the school as a partner but continued to teach. No One was born like that, with people sending us projects and saying, “Let’s go.”
In terms of entrepreneurship challenges, I imagine that they emerged later on?
Yes. We reinvent ourselves a lot at No One. We are in the third season of the company now. The first season of No One was my cofounder Marcelo Quinan and me tackling the kind of incredible challenges where you say, “This is cool; I’m excited to work on it.” We had freedom. The gig economy was just starting – many people were becoming freelancers, and we managed to surf that wave because we could assemble the most amazing teams easily. That would be more difficult today, I think.
Back then, we could look at a challenge and say, “Who is the most incredible team of people we can call to help us develop and solve this?” We’d put together a team of four or five people. We were free to set up a worldwide dream team to solve a specific project.
This process went on for almost four years. We didn’t see No One as a company just yet, more as a vehicle to do amazing projects. I see a big difference between then and now. There was a moment when we needed to understand how to turn it into a company, so there was less dependence on us. The first challenge was to formalize what we were doing: this company will have a purpose and a value proposition, and it will formally employ people, have a business plan, and so on. We had more responsibility with a company; before that, we simply put teams together, and it was fluid.
The responsibility of having a company sounds like a much bigger challenge.
Yes, and that was our second season: having a team, training and engaging people, understanding our place in the world. It was clear to us that “it’s time to design better” – still our tagline today – was our purpose. That’s what we wanted to create.
And that brings us to a third season, which has been maybe the last five years, where you grow the team, you understand how much impact you can generate, and you decide how big you want your company to be. Learning that we don’t need to be a huge company to have a huge impact. We understand there’s a market value, we can work to increase our valuation, and investors are knocking on our door. We are entering this venture world of investment and M&A, which we usually hear about in the entrepreneurship world. That came later for us; it was secondary.
Tell me more about how you build teams. Has it changed throughout the years?
At No One, we may need to design a retail store with amazing user journeys and principles of sustainability, or help a large paper-industry company improve the employee experience of people that work inside of a forest, or design a seamless and memorable digital experience for a major education group. We need to assemble multidisciplinary teams to create projects with different worldviews.
No One’s name comes from that: we were sitting in a cafe in Portugal, writing a sort of manifesto of our values because we didn’t even have a name yet. Everything we wrote was about the power of incredible people working together and bringing complementary perspectives and worldviews. The last sentence was “Because no one is better than everyone together.”
I had a set of hard skills; my cofounder had another. We don’t come from the same place: he comes from technology, and I come from research and communication. We needed people who would bring skills different from ours.
Sometimes, I have more hours dedicated to work, and other times my personal life will take over. There’s no fifty-fifty balance. I learned to forgive myself in moments where I’ve let things fall.
What about soft skills?
The basic line of soft skills is communicating with people different from yourself. We are always looking for different perspectives and disciplines, but also different world visions. People from different regions and upbringings, people with different skills. We have psychologists, and we have engineers. It’s like speaking different languages. They bring this multidisciplinary approach, but what they all have as a starting point is the ability to build and talk. If people are very different from each other and unwilling to communicate and collaborate, it will go badly.
This remains our basic premise still. And for this context, it’s worth sharing: I want to work with people I’d love to sit at a bar with, people I’d love to have at lunch to exchange ideas, people who are curious and care about building a vast repertoire, who are interested in building and creating. Passionate people. Passion is something that ends up directing us a lot.
What was the best decision so far?
Defining what success is for me. Maybe halfway through my journey with No One, I managed to define what it means to have a successful company. Is being successful having a giant company that will have investors and grow fast and be on the pages of magazines? Or is it having a company that has good results, is profitable and distributes results well? Is it a company that allows me to pick up my daughter from school every day?
We are and have always been profitable, we are growing sustainably and never went through major layoffs, we work with the biggest companies from Brazil and the world, and we design amazing projects. Sometimes, when we look at successful entrepreneurs, we only praise people who created unicorns. I don’t want to build a unicorn just for the sake of it and have to go through that hustle culture usually associated with entrepreneurship. While that approach may work for many people, and I totally respect that, it’s not for me. I want to pick my daughter up from school every day, and deliver work of the highest quality and relevance that manages to transform our customers and the ecosystem where they are, and I want to deliver products and services that improve people’s lives. Running a business is a lot of work indeed, but I don’t need to be miserably workaholic to do so. I can make good money and still find balance.
What are your top work essentials?
Computer, water and, most importantly, Post-Its and markers.
At what age did you found your company?
What are your most-used apps?
Whatsapp. Discord for work. And Pinterest. I love Pinterest.
What book has most influenced your career?
The Tree of Knowledge by Humberto Maturana. What I Wish I Knew When I Was Twenty by Tina Seelig.
What favorite positive habits have you cultivated?
Yoga and drinking lots of water.
Main photo by Marcelo Bruzzi