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
Wednesday 07 April 1999
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.
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