Two of the world’s most exciting creatives on balancing a baby, an engagement, and an acquisition.
Cat is currently building the modern day alert system, Iris and was the co-founder of digital publishing startup Liberio, as well as co-maker of, MakerHunt, and The Gentle Hound, while Benedikt is the chief design officer at Wunderlist, the productivity startup that was recently purchased by Microsoft for an undisclosed amount (rumored to be between $100 and $200 million). Benedikt’s also found time to write Typoguide (a guide for the type-illiterate), co-make The Gentle Hound and co-create Watches for iPad.
The couple have also found time to build a life together—something that might seem impossible to those of us spending the majority of our waking hours staring at screens and building products.
In the first of our new series highlighting the lives and lessons learned by top Makers, we chat with Cat and Ben about living with a designer, side projects, how technology fits into their parenting philosophy, and what the Microsoft acquisition means to their lives
What is it like living and working together as two incredibly talented (and busy!) designers? Are you able to maintain a balance while living the startup life?
I’ve been to the point where I’ve burned out and I can’t afford to get there again.
Cat: For me [Ben’s] one of my biggest mentors and someone I look up to as an individual. I’m always vibing off him and picking his brain as much as possible.
Ben: I think there was a moment where we both realized that reaching a balance was a very important skill. For me, it actually took longer and I learned a lot from her in that regard because if you love what you do and you’re at a startup it can become very toxic. It doesn’t make you a great professional that you work long hours. It actually makes you a much better professional when you learn to balance and rather than cranking 16 hours days, just go to work for 8 hours.
Cat: We have a rule—I wouldn’t say a strict rule, strict with a sprinkle of looseness. Every Week we have a date day and on those date days we make it a point to not talk about work. We’re both in the industry, we love what we do, but there are other things going on in the world and our personal lives that definitely need to be discussed.
If we were bank robbers or secret agents he’d be a horrible partner but as a designer he’s perfect.
Speaking of balance, Cat, I noticed you’re working on a lot of side projects. What does your typical day look like?
Cat: I think at one point I was approaching a place where I was taking on too much so I killed a couple of the side projects. Right now I take on a few client projects per month—enough so that I can still focus on Liberio. I honestly love juggling a lot of things.
I know once you get to the size of say, Uber, then you don’t have time for these type of projects, so I’m really trying to enjoy it and make the most of it right now.
Ben talked about cutting down on hours worked. Are these long days for you?
Cat: No they’re not long days. I’m pretty strict about that. My days start in the morning around 9:30–10 and are usually over by 6:30–7. Some days things happen but most of the time work’s done and it’s time to take care of the puppy and the house. I’ve been to the point where I’ve burned out and I can’t afford to get there again.
So Ben, what does your work day typically look like?
Ben: We get up and I usually head into the office around 10. I like to work in the office. It’s a personal belief, I just enjoy working with people in the same room in real life, especially for product related work. From there I’m a little inconsistent. Lately I’ve been traveling and speaking to press a lot so it really depends on my schedule. I try to squeeze in one day of work from home as well. This is usually my most productive day where I take care of email and some of the stuff I need quiet time for.
You’re both incredibly busy people and on top of that you’re expecting your first child. What was your reaction when you found out?
Cat: Honestly I laughed. I laughed because it was a bundle of nerves and being overjoyed. Ben, I watched your face go into complete shock and excitement all at once which was a fun shade of 45 reds.
Ben: Yea I loved it. The moment we found out was just pure excitement. In that moment it’s pure joy and then the second thought is ‘oh my God this is going to be really challenging’. The next few days I was just smiling and I could barely go to the office without telling anyone.
Cat: At one point I told him he wasn’t allowed to go into the office because Ben is someone who can’t keep a secret and he doesn’t know how to whisper. If we were bank robbers or secret agents he’d be a horrible partner but as a designer he’s perfect.
So, being both designers, what’s it like shopping for baby items?
Ben: Oh man. It’s torture. It’s the same as shopping for everything else. Shopping in this household is not shopping as usual. Whatever we purchase goes through a very long research and approval process. You don’t want to put anything on your baby that is of low quality. We’ll argue about the illustration on a shirt or the typography.
Cat: When you come into our house you can tell that everything in here is picked well. A lot of it is hand crafted. But I think it shows and reflects in who we are as individuals. With baby stuff, I can understand there’s a need for all these colors and from a psychological standpoint I get it, but for a lot of these products the quality is just shit. It’s really difficult to find beautiful products that are made in a way that are comfortable for the baby.
How do you see technology fitting into your philosophy on parenting?
Ben: I think from a certain age on technology makes sense in raising our child. I’m also very sure that the first things I want to teach our child have nothing to do with technology.
I know there’s so much more to learn in the world, like drawing, that have nothing to do with technology. These are the things I had the opportunity to learn growing up on the countryside that I think are more important. If we don’t teach them there will be a lack of them in the future and a lot of them are more important than exploring technology at a young age.
Technology is not just positive. It’s not just consumption. Technology is surrounding us but there is enough out there to break out of it.
Cat: We enjoying traveling. We enjoy playing chess and listening to records. Growing up I had access to technology, but it was limited. I think it’s important to expose them to technology but there has to be limits. Whether it’s technology or something else, when something consumes you it’s unhealthy.
Ben: We’re probably the first generation of parents that understand the digital world. When I look at my parents and the generation in between I think there’s a lack of understanding of digitalization and what that means. I think that will help us after all to raise our children in a way that they see the best of both worlds.
I remember growing up and having a treehouse and playing outside. Setting up my watercolors and just drawing. I also remember when we set up a modem in the house and could connect to the internet. I think this helped me realize the best of both worlds.
Back to the startup world, what was it like having Wunderlist acquired by Microsoft?
This was extremely exciting from the beginning. Microsoft is Microsoft. It’s computer history and it’s probably by far the most influential digital company from the beginning.
On the other side, as you’re going through that process, especially as part of the leadership team, you want to be sure that you’re making the right decision. So, when it comes to [making the decision] it’s intense. It’s not really exhausting because as long as it’s exciting it’s good and it’s fun. But it is intense.
It’s also a different kind of work. You have a lot of meetings and you’re travelling.
Cat: It was interesting to say the least, to be looking in from the outside and see what he was experiencing. It was a long process. Like anything startup related it’s stressful—late days, long nights. In the end it’s not as intense as when you’re raising your first round in terms of the sweat and pain that comes with it. For them, there was always this excitement that came with it. It’s a new journey and a new adventure for them. The dreams that he has for Wunderlist, they’ll get to continue that and throughout the process he had this great spirit about him which was encouraging to see.
Ben: Yea, the entire team stays in Berlin. Simply because Microsoft knows how well we function as an organization and they really see the quality and the energy of the Berlin startup scene which is great for us.
This was also very important to us in the decision because we’ve assembled a great team over the years and we want to keep working on what we believe in. We have a big vision that we’re working towards and thankfully that is aligned with Microsoft’s vision of reinventing productivity.
Cat: Once they made the announcement, as a Berlin founder, I was excited because having a Berlin based startup acquired by a company like Microsoft, and for them to recognize the greatness that the Berlin startup scene has, is so good for it. It only brings positivity and helps it grow.