Sue Cooper Built a Company with Heart
As Co-CEO of Cooper for the past 25 years, Sue Cooper has worn many hats, but as Cooper has grown, she's shed most of them to focus on what she really loves: building a strong and supportive culture so that Cooper can make technology easier to use. Sue talked with us about how she's built a company with heart, how she and her husband, Alan Cooper, pioneered user experience design as a field, and how "culture is something that’s created by each individual."
FAST FACTS ABOUT Sue
Where she’s from: Southern California
Grew up with: mother, father, three brothers
Education: Bachelor’s degree in communications from University of California, Santa Barbara
Where she lives now: Bay Area, California
Growing up she wanted to be: doing something that helped people
Now she’s: co-founder and co-CEO of Cooper
Tell us about yourself growing up!
I grew up extremely shy, a tomboy, because of my three brothers. I would be asked to go up to the chalkboard in grade school, and I’d be so nervous.
A funny thing happened. I took communications 101 as a freshman in college. A lot of that is public speaking, trying to overcome my shyness, but the real thing that interested me was interpersonal communication and mass communication. We worked a lot on nonverbal, posture, communication, on how to say things, on listening skills, on how to be an effective communicator, and I loved that stuff. I got hooked on communications as a major. We’d break into small groups, and I did great in small groups. We learned how to influence each other. I realized that the one to one is great, but the one to many is fascinating. That’s when I started studying marketing and advertising and using mass communication as a vehicle for my career.
How did you and your husband, Alan Cooper, start your business?
I graduated college in ‘78, and I moved to the Bay Area in 1979 and worked at an agency and worked at a firm on the marketing-advertising side. When I first moved up to San Francisco, my brother brought his boss over. He was working for Alan’s first company, and I thought, oh, he’s an interesting guy. Our relationship grew, and then we got married in 1980. I was 23. He was 27.
I had a career at a couple of high-tech companies doing marketing, including advertising, manager of digital research and director of marketing at Logitech, and then we had kids. We started Cooper after we had kids. We said, “We need to figure something out that we both like to do.” We wanted the flexibility of having our own business.
Alan was doing a lot of coding and inventing these products, and he turned to me, and he said, “You know, I really want to stop programming. I want to design, but nobody’s going to pay us to just design.” I said, “Let’s try.” He hung out his banner as a design consultant, and the business started. We started in ’92 and hired our first employee in ’94.
Together we got into running a service business, which is very different than a product business, and we had a big learning curve. In the service business, not only do you have to have relationships with your clients and make your clients happy, you also have to really understand how to do contracts and how to structure deals and how to make the clients happy.
One thing we didn't know at the time is that having your own business means it consumes your brain all the time. We wanted flexibility so we could be with the kids and do the school things, but the counter side to that is there’s an awful lot of worrying in between times.
User experience design was a new concept when you started Cooper. How did you build your business?
Nobody else did it. A few companies did software design, but this was not a field. The biggest marketing investment we made was writing books about it, and those books are still our best marketing vehicle. It was a scramble at first. Alan had a pretty good reputation at that point already from inventing Visual Basic, and so we were lucky enough to have clients come to us. At first, it’s just your network. As you have results and you talk about your results and the word spreads, the network grows. We focused on having really talented people and over-delivering and under-promising our deliverable results. Hiring is so key. I think if you get the right people and you allow them to do what they are good at, then you’re going to have a success. As the whole concept of design technology and integrating design into the development became more popular, then we had these larger companies come to us and talk to us after several years of doing it with some of our friends in the industry.
My goal was to create a company and a culture that doesn't have a lot of politics and that supports people who can have a life while they’re also working really hard.
What is it like having a business partnership with your husband? How has your role at Cooper evolved?
Alan and I are co-CEOs, and we’re both on the board. Being a partnership in a company and owning a company together is very similar to a partnership in life. I wouldn't recommend it for everyone because it’s like you’re on a roller coaster together. The highs are really high, and the lows are really low. Alan’s the technical visionary, outside guy, and I’m the inside person. Alan’s passion is making technology easier for people, and mine is more focused on making a company that people love to be in. I’m the one that makes the connections, and the business deals, and the culture. We both make the culture. Everyone makes the culture.
When I started, I did everything from operations, accounts payable, accounts receivable, to project management, to HR. Slowly, as you grow, you get to peel off the things that other people can do better and whittle that down so that you’re a more effective leader. I’m always the behind-the-scenes person. I think part of that stems from being shy, but you have a lot of impact behind the scenes as a marketing-operations-business person.
My passion is taking the frustration out of two things. One is the use of products. Things are just too hard to use, and we have a long way to go on fixing that problem. My other goal was to create a company and a culture that doesn't have a lot of politics and that supports people who can have a life while they’re also working really hard.
I called that having a company with heart. I was determined to create a place where it would be really fun and we could be innovative and have a creative culture. I saw so much burnout in Silicon Valley, and I thought the longevity of these people is dependent on not burning out. That’s the big picture goal I had for the culture at Cooper.
Can you tell us more about building the culture at Cooper?
There are a few things that we did that I think helped us really become successful. We said, “Be kind.” Be nice to each other, and if you have an issue, go directly and talk to that person. Assume good intentions. You’re here to support your peers and to make each other successful. If you find out that it’s a miscommunication, at least you’re talking directly to that person.
At staff meeting once a week, we give out four little poker chips that say Cooper on them to everyone. The chips are worth 50 dollars apiece, and you get to publicly give your chip away to a peer and say, “Thank you so much for jumping in at the last minute and helping me with my deliverable.” It’s peer to peer, and it’s a public recognition of something that someone did for you.
It makes them feel great and makes everybody feel great that this is happening in the company. We can have a chip or a shout-out or super powers. Jenea invented the super power tag where you give them an award for something that they’re really, really good at, and they get to have this super power sticker at their desk.
It gives you a peek into how people are, the things they’re struggling with and what they need help on. And it gives people the chance to recognize each other for a kindness or an achievement. It’s a way to make this positive reinforcement tangible, but it’s also a way of saying, “By participating in this recognition of each other, we are becoming the culture ourselves.”
culture is something that’s created by each individual. You are the culture
How does that contribute to your larger goals for Cooper’s culture?
It makes everybody more helpful because you have that underlying awareness that other people are trying to help each other. The other part of it is, there’s a culture class that we teach at Cooper Professional Education. One of the things that is bottom line for me is that culture is something that’s created by each individual. You are the culture.
That’s something that took me a long time to learn. I felt such a heavy responsibility on my shoulders to keep the culture positive and alive, but then I realized everybody in the organization has the responsibility to do it. When I allowed myself to let go of that burden and allowed other people to pick it up, it instantly became part of who we are. You can’t have a good culture by policing it. You have to have a good culture by role modeling it and by making the goodness contagious.
How has your vision for Cooper changed over the years?
It’s constantly evolving. When we started, we were doing product and software design, and now we do service design, experience design, things that aren’t even design. We help figure out the culture or how to design an organization where people can be successful. We look at all of the impacts that design has on an organization, and we help our companies make that better.
We used to call ourselves Cooper Interaction Design because we were so focused on the interaction of technology and how it behaves with people, but we realized very early on that the impact was much bigger. About 12 years ago, we changed our name to Cooper, because we were doing so much more than just interaction design. We’ve been broadening out what we do and how we help our clients every year.
our vision is to have technology be delightful
How did Cooper Professional Education become such a significant part of Cooper’s work?
Back in the late ‘90s, we needed to grow, and nobody knew interaction design. We decided to do an in-house training program for the new designers that we were bringing on so that they could get up to speed on how we work, how to do the research, interaction design principle, and all the things that you have to learn to be a good consultant, including communication skills and the softer side of consulting.
At one point, Alan turned to me and said, “I think we should offer this boot camp to the public.” We realized together that it would be much better to share it, because there’s endless need for designers and technology design, and the only way we’re going to have an impact is if we teach it. Otherwise, we’re not going to achieve our vision, which is to have technology be delightful, and easier to use. We opened it up to the public, and it was a huge success from day one. Over the years, we slowly added on classes. Now it’s integrated into everything we do. Oftentimes, a client will want us to do the work, but also teach their staff how to do the work. More and more, it’s very integrated into the projects we do.
You recently celebrated Cooper’s 25th anniversary. What keeps you excited about your work?
We’ve been pioneering it since then, but [user experience design] has come into its own as a respected profession in the last five or ten years. Not everybody understands the power of design thinking and what that means to the organization, but they know they got to get some of that. It is such a great profession for people who want to get into the heads of the users and understand their goals and how to make their life better through technology. We’re just at the tip of the iceberg of understanding the importance of design in our world.
I’m 60, and now I feel like I’ve been in the technology world for a long time, but you know, things are changing faster and faster. We’re leaving behind many, many people who just drop off and say I don’t want to deal with that stuff. There’s an endless amount of work to be done in user experience design and in technology design.
Running a business is risky, and you take on a lot of responsibility for people’s livelihood, but it all becomes worth it to me when someone says to me, “Sue, this is the best job I’ve ever had. Thank you for creating Cooper.” That’s the gold. If I can help people have a place that they love to work, then I feel like I’m doing what I need to do.
I like creating places where people can shine and be together.
What fills your time outside of work? I read that you have a former dairy farm.
It’s a former working dairy. It’s about 50 acres, and it’s seven old barns. One of the barns is Alan’s workshop, and one’s a party barn, and one is a place where we can do events and yoga. I really enjoy fixing up this ranch. I like creating places where people can shine and be together, and that’s what I feel like we did at Cooper, and we’re doing it again here at the ranch.
We have a whole community, a ranching community, here now, and we’re working together to figure out where we’re taking this ranch. In the meantime, we’re focused on soil restoration. We’re bringing the soil back from years of grazing by cattle only. We’re bringing back different plants, and we’re bringing back the water storage capacity in the land, and it just feels really good.
We do events here. We’ve had clients come out and do events here. We’ve had our hootenanny here for Cooper a couple years in a row. We all get together and do exercises out in the field and meet and do some strategic planning, and then the afternoon is full of fun and games. That’s been really nice for the company. It’s a real gift because we can share what we’re learning at the ranch with our technology friends, and we can share the place here with them.
I care deeply about women being successful in technology, but I care even more deeply about having a technology world where we’re not leaving people behind.
What else are you involved with?
I’m passionate about helping women be successful, and especially girls be successful in the workforce. I think if you do something that you care about, you’re going to do a good job of it, but it doesn't always just fall in your lap. I care deeply about women being successful in technology, but I care even more deeply about having a technology world where we’re not leaving people behind. We’ve been active in a couple of organizations recently, better diversity and women organizations.
There is an organization called Technolochicas. We met them when we were in Mexico City. They were at the Google offices recently doing a class with a number of women. I think it’s a fantastic organization, and their whole thing is if you can’t see it, you can’t imagine it. They take these young girls, and they get them inside organizations, and they get them exposed to other women that are successful.
What advice would you give someone who wants to build a company with heart?
Build a company that you care about. A business is all-consuming. If you care about it and like the product or the service that you’re giving and if your heart’s in it, then you’re much more likely to have it be successful, because you’re going to spend so much time learning how to run and grow a business.
Hire the right people, and make sure you let them do what they’re good at. Having the right people in the right roles in your company is probably the most important decision you make. You spend a lot of time with these people. You want to make sure that they have similar values and they have the skillset that is going to help you grow and get you where you want to get.
We have several people that are really important to us that have been with us for a very long time, and part of the reason why we continue to have the culture we have is because of them. They know both me and Alan really well, and I feel very lucky that they’re as loyal as they are to Cooper, because they’re such a big important part of it.
Did you have an idea of what you thought your adult life would be like when you were a teenager?
No, I didn't. I knew I liked helping people, and I thought I liked the glamor of advertising and marketing. But I had no idea what I wanted to do, and it wasn’t until I took that communication class that I got a direction. That was part of my general education requirements. That and philosophy and psychology, and I think that the GE requirements really are a good thing for someone who doesn't really know what they want to do.
It’s turned out that we help people by making technology do what you need it to do, make it more understandable. We also help people by supporting them in their careers and at Cooper in a way that they don’t find other places.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Check out books Sue loves!