Me And My Partner: Michael Wolff and Piers Schmidt

The designer Michael Wolff and the entrepreneur Piers Schmidt bonded while strolling round Regent's Park in London. In 1997 they founded The Fourth Room, an innovative consultancy that helps companies to plan future strategy

PIERS SCHMIDT: I read English at Cambridge, and later set up my own company. The pinnacle was an ambitious management buy-in for three classical recording companies, to create an independent company that had some muscle.

The idea of taking artists' careers long-term and becoming more like a management consultancy was innovative. But it all went horribly wrong. We needed pounds 4m in equity and only got to about pounds 3m. My finance director took me aside and said: "You have to let go". I ended up as a corporate financier to pay off my debts. It took me three months to persuade them to give me the job, and I left after three days.

The very next day, a chum rang up and said: "There's a design company who are very creative but don't understand business. They have asked me to help, but I can't. Would you?" I saw a huge opportunity for companies like that to employ people like me who could articulate their value to the business community. A headhunter led me to Newell and Sorrell, where I met Michael.

He told me a story about the way people problem-solve: they tend to go into certain mind spaces, like rooms in a house. The first room is where people see a brilliant example of what they are trying to achieve - and then set about trying to replicate it. It's essentially plagiarism. Michael said: "There's a lot to learn, but don't dawdle there." The second room is that of reason - death by market research.

In the third room, you find a lot of people from design and advertising: it's the room of convention and precedent. You get repetition, and you don't achieve any kind of distinction. The fourth room is the room of not knowing. It's the room of liberating yourself and giving yourself to total blank space. That gave us a mechanism to create a business.

You have to wait for an idea to gel, then go for it. Meanwhile, I ran the rebranding programme for British Airways, which I used to prototype ideas. Three years and pounds 6m of billing later, it was time for a deep breath. I had been talking to Michael about the limitations of companies. We wanted our product to be the thinking: to draw compelling, tangible pictures and scenarios of possible futures for businesses facing climactic change.

I met Wendy Gordon, now The Fourth Room's head of insight, through British Airways. I put her with Michael and hoped they would get on. She was bored of being the chairman of her own market research company. He came away thinking she was fantastic. Russell Lloyd, whom Michael had known for years, became our financial director. We all gathered at a hotel in Suffolk on a sunny Sunday afternoon in July 1997, and said: "Let's go for it."

Michael is the ultimate leaper. He leaps further and more daringly than anyone else. My job is to say: "Look Michael, that's fantastic, but it's not realistic. We've got to come back a few levels."

There are suits who would look at Michael over the rim of their spectacles and say: "He's crazy." People at Newell and Sorrell said: "The guy's a nightmare; you can't keep him on a lead." I knew that, and therefore didn't try to.

Michael delivers his ideas on three levels: one is genius, the second is good, and the third is terrible. Dealing with that last third can cause difficulties, and one thing I have learnt is to be firm, not in a patronising or negative way, but being clear and having resolve. There are moments when we have to bite our lips. Michael has a lot of experience and wisdom. He's very laid back, and that could be my occasional frustration: he's still such a Sixties man.

Michael gives himself in 10 seconds, and he's never before found a way of charging for that. So we have said to clients: "Join us for a fixed monthly fee, and because it all adds up, we will feel justified in giving you the ideas."

We have a big vision, to become a new kind of venture capital company. There is a huge gap in the market, and we have a revolutionary model. Our aim is to put together venture ideas and management teams ourselves and take them from the moment of thinking through to a patent or crystallised idea.

It's a four to five-year project. We're developing capital value here and, at the end of it, Michael will have created something to live comfortably from. For me, it's the opportunity to make some money to give me a bit of freedom from being slave to a salary.

MICHAEL WOLFF: The first thing I noticed about Piers was that unclaustrophobic sense. So often, by virtue of being an employee, you are sacrificing something of yourself. He wasn't doing that - he was his own man. He wasn't trying to please anyone or worrying about the consequences of what he said.

In 1964, I created Wolff Olins with Wally Olins, who had an astonishing cupboard full of qualities I lacked. He was serious about discipline, about history, about what he knew. I am frivolous about what I know, about history - but passionate about the future. Wally was a historicist. What led to the split was that our first chapter was about forging new territory, and I wanted to stay doing that. I became an advocate for creativity wherever I went: I was endlessly in other people's territories and tribes, but found myself exasperated. The "fourth room" was a little autobiographical talk that I gave. I had spent a great deal of time in the first room. I felt illegitimate as a designer. I began to edge into the second room, to validate what we did within the business community. There's also all sorts of things to do with being compliant and having good relationships. I felt that Wolff Olins had moved with relish into the third room. It's a room where you find relaxation. But my exploration instinct is tireless. I think it gives me an energy, though other people find it tiring.

I realised I wanted to find a fourth room for myself to work in, because that was where I was strongest. I had always been obliged to obfuscate, saying: "It's going to take me six weeks," because that's what business understands.

I was lonely working on my own, so I went to Newell and Sorrell, to be useful to them in a non-specific way. One day, Piers and I were walking round the lake in Regent's Park and I told him the fourth room story, and felt he realised the predicament. We knew we were both warriors in the same battle. For me, criticism is a carborundum stone. It's the way to sharpen things you have already conceived. I found the N & S company culture very intolerant to criticism: it was hostile to having to face the fact that the road we had come along maybe wasn't the right road. I think it does people a disservice not to go back: I felt it was of more value to be open and naked. Every time I heard someone talk about "positioning", I couldn't stand it, because it immediately says: "I can't reveal the truth, therefore I have to take a position."

I knew that to be isolated with my own qualities wasn't a sufficiently balanced vehicle actually to run. I enjoyed the process of becoming a business. It took time to realise there had been a picture of me, which I had accepted as accurate - that I was not a person who could build a business. It's very gratifying, with The Fourth Room, that when we are faced with someone who does have a problem with the future, we can solve it very quickly.

The venture capital side is the most interesting thing. I don't endlessly want to use other people's companies to do things. There are things I would like to see happening. I wish we were in America, in some ways: I find the UK the land of foot brakes and the US the land of accelerator pedals. But I hope we have walked into clutch land, where people are willing to disengage.

Like any partners, Piers and I have an underpinning trust and unstated telepathy. We go incredibly fast. Piers has enormous electricity and very little baggage. We had a meeting this morning where we did a month's work in half an hour. It's like having skis of infinite length on a glacier. He has an incredibly clear head and terrific energy, and I can always see a bigger picture.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
people
News
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the iWatch for you? Well, it depends if you want for the fitness tech, or the style
News
Astronauts could be kept asleep for days or even weeks
scienceScientists are looking for a way to keep astronauts in a sleeplike state for days or weeks
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

Ashdown Group: IT Manager / Development Manager - NW London - £58k + 15% bonus

£50000 - £667000 per annum + excellent benefits : Ashdown Group: IT Manager / ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant / Telemarketer - OTE £20,000

£13000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Scotland's leading life insuran...

Ashdown Group: Training Programme Manager - City, London

£40000 - £45000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Training Programme Manag...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own