In a third article in a series of conversations with Slack Fund portfolio companies, which explore their growth stories and the roles they play in creating the future of work, Jason Spinell, head of Slack Fund, sits down with MURAL Co-Founder & CEO Mariano Suarez-Battan to discuss his journey scaling MURAL from a digital whiteboard used to help teams collaborate in real-time to design video games to a robust visual collaboration platform used by the world’s largest enterprises.
Mariano Suarez-Battan is a big believer in harnessing the power of imagination. After selling his first company, a successful video game studio called Three Melons, he co-founded MURAL to help innovative teams collaborate visually, wherever they are.
MURAL is a digital workspace for visual collaboration, and empowers distributed teams to solve complex problems, fast. With more than 200 templates and an ever-growing suite of integrations and enterprise features, MURAL has become an integral part of the way many global organizations work together.
Through it all, MURAL’s approach to culture-building has remained consistent, with a relentless focus on the company’s mission, values, and strategies. Following a year of rapid growth, Mariano and the team at MURAL are well-positioned to boost productivity in today’s hybrid work environment.
I recently caught up with Mariano to reflect on his journey so far and discover what the future holds for MURAL.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Jason Spinell: Can you tell us a little about yourself, your journey to founding MURAL, and give us a brief introduction to the company?
Mariano Suarez-Battan: Sure. We founded MURAL 10 years ago, but it really feels like there’s been a lot of different founding moments along the way. My first company was a video game company, which was eventually acquired by Disney. In the process of designing games, I found that I needed a platform like MURAL for the early phases of new product development, to co-create and interact with colleagues who were distributed all over the world. That’s where it all started. MURAL solved a problem I was experiencing myself, giving me the ability to think out loud visually, using a common visual language.
MURAL is a digital workplace for visual collaboration. We help people collaborate and transform teamwork by making meetings and workshops interactive experiences designed for problem solving, play, and imagination. Teams in product, consulting, leadership, innovation, technology, and sales and customer success, among others, use MURAL for strategy and planning, workshops, and retrospective team building, to name a few.
Now, due to the ramifications of the pandemic, these important meetings and workshops aren’t necessarily happening in person anymore — they’re digital first. To be successful, teams need collaboration software like online whiteboards and skills like meeting facilitation to unlock the power of imagination and help deploy best practices at scale.
When you first see MURAL, it looks like a whiteboard. But when you start playing around more, particularly with our guided visual methods, you discover that we’re actually about transforming the way teams do what we call ‘imagination work’ so that working together is more fun and innovation happens faster.
Jason Spinell: When we first met 10 years ago, the future of work was certainly not the buzzword that it is today. What does the future of work mean to you, and what role do you think software like MURAL will play in shaping it
Mariano Suarez-Battan: In the future, collaboration should and will happen from anywhere. We’re facilitating this, and we’re focused on doing it in a playful, imaginative way. Imagination and play at work might sound like an oxymoron, but we really believe it’s central to the way teams collaborate and big ideas come to market.
People have always used visual methods to understand complex problems and possibilities but the methodologies like agile, lean, and design thinking that help us to innovate are relatively new. These days, we have templates like the Business Model Canvas, customer journey maps, and more. There’s a lot of skill and preparation that goes into running effective workshop-style meetings, leveraging these methods. As humans, we’re very good at understanding complex problems with empathy and coming up with possibilities to solve them.
That part of the future of work is going to be the last to be automated, and there’s two reasons for that. One, because it’s fun to do imagination work and create things. And two, because it’s hard for software to automate creativity.
We believe that people are going to be spending more time on this ‘imagination work’ in the future. The methodologies that have become popular over the last 10 years are here to stay. Similar to how we all know what a P&L is in finance, we now all know how important a customer journey map is for personalizing the customer experience.
Jason Spinell: We’re seeing light at the end of the tunnel with the pandemic, but it’s been a huge disruption to the way we work and collaborate together. It’s probably pulled forward a lot of the types of work we’ll be doing in the future by 3 – 5 years. What are some of the long-term impacts you see the pandemic having on the way we work in the future?
Mariano Suarez-Battan: When the globe was forced into this remote work experiment, people started to pay a lot more attention to how they used their time. We started to realize we don’t really need an all-day meeting to get something done. At the same time we realized that we don’t need a ping-pong table or water cooler to drive culture; we need to design our team building time to be more productive.
The most impactful change that’s happened through the pandemic is that we’re paying more attention to how we design our time. The best practices that have come out of the past year are all digital by design. Whether that’s someone’s approach to calendar management, the way we write reports and emails, or how to best combine asynchronous work with synchronous work — it’s easy to create best practices to run better meetings and create a better working environment.
Jason Spinell: I love that idea of taking best practices that are already out there and mapping them to your scenario. You talked about being forced into this experiment of being fully remote. Now, we’re coming back into this world where it’s going to be a hybrid approach. Can you talk about how you think this will play out in terms of opportunities and challenges? How does MURAL help in a hybrid world?
Mariano Suarez-Battan: There are a lot of things that can be done easily remotely, and a lot of things that are hard to do remotely. It’s a spectrum. I’ve always felt the office-based environment was random and serendipitous, and I don’t want to settle for random and serendipitous for important things.
I think there are games we can play to maximize the likelihood of interesting ideas bumping into each other, and not just leave it to chance of some interesting conversation happening at the water cooler. I think that same situation applies to how we’re designing time in the hybrid workspace.
The things that were done in person — strategy, innovation workshops, customer engagements, team building — we were already focusing on at MURAL. Many of our members utilize MURAL in the office sitting side by side, as well as with remote colleagues logging in from around the world. Activities that require a high cognitive load and a lot of intimacy, that’s our focus. We want to help organizations build high-performance teams who are also friends with each other.
Jason Spinell: What are some of the tools you’re using at MURAL to help navigate this remote-first or hybrid workplace?
Mariano Suarez-Battan: We like to say that we “drink our own champagne” at MURAL. That is, we are our own best customer, where remote work and visual collaboration is part of our DNA. We’re focused on building a culture of outcomes, autonomy, and alignment. I’m very explicit when it comes to our mission, beliefs, values, strategies, and goals. I repeat them over and over. That’s first and foremost.
It’s not easy to build this kind of culture. It takes some intervention from me and others to ensure that there is autonomy and alignment, and to make sure that we’re focused on outcomes over outputs. Without putting the mission first, it’s hard to let go and give that trust to your team members.
Setting outcomes or OKRs is difficult, but it’s on us as leaders to make sure it happens. On a micro level, we aim to do more asynchronously, eliminating unnecessary meetings. We share videos, write-ups, or MURAL visualizations beforehand so teammates come prepared, and then we maximize our time meeting together. At the end of a productive meeting, we come to a consensus, assign action items, and take time to reflect on the meeting itself. This gives us a way of continuously learning and improving.
Another practice we’ve been using, first at the leadership team level and now deploying across the company, is starting meetings by asking how our teammates are feeling, both physically and emotionally. Sometimes it’s hard to perform at your highest level — you might be sick, jetlagged, or have something going on in your personal life — and it’s important to acknowledge that before the meeting starts.
Jason Spinell: It’s important to acknowledge that it’s okay for people not to be at 100% all the time. That openness and transparency and willingness to push power and knowledge to the edges of the organization really helps with culture.
Mariano Suarez-Battan: Absolutely, and it comes with a lot of responsibility. The culture needs to be right for this to work. It’s been challenging as we add more people: we’re now a 660-person organization, all remote. A lot of us haven’t met each other face to face, and at least 80% of our employees have joined during the pandemic, so it’s been hard to deploy our culture to all these new people. I look forward to the day when we can all be together again at a team offsite or retreat.
Jason Spinell: Thinking a little more about that hybrid type environment, how are you building a product at MURAL that helps companies solve these problems?
Mariano Suarez-Battan: For us, this isn’t new. Hybrid workplaces existed long before COVID, particularly at global enterprises with offices around the world. A lot of our members have been facilitating hybrid meetings for a long time but there’s still a lot of room for innovation in this area.
The most important thing is empathy. Recognize that if one person is remote, everyone is remote. A team with some people in a single location and others who are remote should treat meetings as if everyone is remote. Before, we might have dialed someone in, and they would just sit there, no video, just listening to the meeting on mute. People are more empathetic now: they turn on video and look each other in the eye, they check that volume is working before the meeting starts, they acknowledge if someone raises their hand to speak. Technology has enabled a lot of this, giving a voice to those who don’t often offer their POV.
But now, some people are going to be together in one location, another group will be together in another location, and others will be completely remote. You’ve got to make sure there are no side conversations, everyone is participating in the conversation, and that there are breakout rooms for dialog if needed. It’s not about letting the workspace do the work for you, it’s about being in control of the time and the space.
Jason Spinell: MURAL integrates with a lot of tools, including Slack. How does that work, and how do you think about integration for MURAL going forward?
Mariano Suarez-Battan: MURAL currently integrates with a number of digital collaboration applications including Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Webex by Cisco, Atlassian, Jira and more. However, this is a huge growth opportunity for us. For me, it’s all about workflows. There are a lot of operational workflows – automations, notifications, approvals, and so forth. But there are also a lot of workflows around strategic planning. And every workflow is very different.
It’s important to have integrations with calendars, with video for meetings, with Slack, with task managers, and much more. We’re investing a lot in this. We have a lot of engineers and product managers working on how we integrate better in a lot of areas — from meetings to the sign-on process.
Right now, our integration with Slack only scratches the surface of what we feel we can do. We want to streamline people’s day from meeting to meeting, automate workflows, and create moments for people to do deep and meaningful work in MURAL. Getting that cadence and choreography right is something that will benefit a lot of our users, and we’re looking forward to delivering that.
Jason Spinell: We talk a lot about the role of Slack as being a great platform to receive notifications about high-value things that happen in other platforms, and to start acting on them. But when we’re talking about deep, focused work, MURAL is the place for that.
Mariano Suarez-Battan: Asynchronous, focused work is now essential to being part of a modern, digital economy, staying competitive in the fight for talent, and building a globally distributed workforce. We talk a lot about workflow orchestration. One example: your calendar will give you a reminder 15 minutes before the start of a meeting. But people need a lot more than 15 minutes to prepare, particularly now that so much of the meeting content is asynchronous. Before the meeting, you might need to spend an hour watching videos or reading user research to form an opinion and participate effectively, to move projects forward. It’s not enough to simply show up to a meeting, you need to come prepared.
We’re focused on making that focused preparation and follow-up better so people can maximize their time together as a team. Your synchronous time together is valuable, and you need to make sure you use it as wisely as possible.
Jason Spinell: That makes a lot of sense. You’ve been an entrepreneur for a long time. What’s the most important piece of advice you’d give first-time founders before they dive in?
Mariano Suarez-Battan: For B2B founders, I always give the same advice. It’s important to remind myself of it as we’re increasing in scale. That advice is to focus on serving a small group of people really, really well.
When you get 10 happy customers, they’ll refer the next 10, and the next 10, and so on. It makes your life as a founder so much easier, those network effects. Be obsessed with personas. Once you’ve got a high NPS score, and high retention rates, you can start identifying more personas to build around. Being more explicit around this shrinks time-to-product-market-fit, and can even shrink your time-to-growth.
Jason Spinell: I like that a lot. Wrapping up with more of a fun question – what’s your favorite Slack emoji?
Mariano Suarez-Battan: My favorite emoji is a custom ‘rock on’ emoji that we have . Another thing we do on Slack is every Friday, our People Operations team shares a prompt, like “If you had a lifetime subscription to the last thing you bought, what would it be?” It always spurs a lot of funny answers and gives us that space to laugh and share.
Slack Fund is a venture fund that invests in and collaborates with entrepreneurs creating the next great software companies building the future of work, a future in which work-life is simpler, more pleasant, and more productive. To date, Slack has invested in Lattice, Guru, Notion, Mural, Hopin, and Loom, bringing them to 90+ total investments across North America and Europe. For more information, visit: https://slack.com/fund
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