M3 Design founder Terry Branson has been following his passion for product design for more than 40 years. In this article, Terry reminisces about how product development has changed over the years and what it takes to create great product designs.
This article has been edited from the original version dated November, 2016
It’s 1976 in San Francisco. The heyday of bell bottoms, VW vans, and explosive growth in technology and innovation. Companies like Intel, Apple, and Xerox are already changing the face of American industry when six new faces arrive from Kansas, primed to join the world of movers, shakers, and future makers. Their purpose: to open Data Products, a small, start-up-like product-development division of a larger corporation. The group melds their various backgrounds and skill sets into a sort of skunkworks team, and the results they achieve will change the course of each one’s career forever.
“It was a work hard, play hard environment,” remembers Terry Branson, who went on to become the founder of M3 Design, a strategic product development firm based in Austin. “There was a lot of foolishness, but we also got a tremendous amount done. And those products were extremely successful. The whole experience made a big impression on all of us. We learned that when you put the right people and talents together, you can solve really challenging problems.”
Fast forward 40 years, and the description of his current team at M3 Design might not look much different from that team of six Terry started his career with in the 70s.
“At the end of the day, it’s about people,” Branson explains. “And since the very beginning, I knew deep down that I wanted to work with cool people and make really cool products. If that’s what you want—whether it’s a business or a product or a team—you need to develop it. People don’t build people. But if you put people together in the right way, they can build something really special. It’s an amazing and powerful thing.”
With a philosophy like that as its foundation, it’s no wonder that M3 Design is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year—and they’re still going strong.
During the first 20 years of his career, Branson worked on the corporate side of product development (PD) and actually hired many firms like the one he later founded in Texas. It was during this time that he began occasionally consulting for start-ups on the side.
“Looking back, I knew a long time ago that I was going to start this firm,” Branson admits. “All the way back when I was fooling around, drawing things on a drawing board, I knew.”
By 1978, that drawing board had taken over the living room of the 1-bedroom apartment he shared with his new wife, Joan. In the evenings, he designed products on a board, in the days before computer-aided design (CAD)—a scene that might be difficult for many of today’s engineers and designers to imagine.
“Product designers had to have a lot of artistic ability back then,” Branson insists. “And to this day—as much as I’m a fan of CAD and what it can do—I still think that the best engineers sketch on paper before they turn to the computer.”
In the late 70s, it could be difficult to develop something totally new because dimensioning was such a challenge before CAD. But with an aeronautical background, Branson had a relatively unique ability to loft his designs. From aircraft skins to plastic products, he could translate complex shapes into the patterns and lofted diagrams that a machine shop would need to begin production.
This may have been why he was offered a side job designing a language translator that ignited his passion for product development. In the evenings, he worked tirelessly, sketching out every detail—from mechanical design to industrial.
“That project really got me excited about consulting,” Branson remembers. “It was a complete product-development job—front to back to plastic parts. That’s what I loved about it, and that’s the kind of start-to-finish project that M3 still loves to take on today.”
During the course of that effort, a gentleman would stop by the Bransons’ apartment to review Terry’s work and direct the project. But the young designer didn’t find out until much later that this manager was also one of the original founders of Atari.
“I’ve always said that you should treat everyone you meet as if they’re the most important person in the world because one day they may be,” Branson asserts. “Relationships—how you treat people—will come back to you. A lot of folks don’t treat people the way they should. They burn bridges. Not M3 Design. Even to this day, our reputation is great, and a lot of our new sales are built on that reputation and on our relationships. We treat people right.”
In truth, there’s more than one factor in the strong reputation that M3 Design has established in the industry.
The team thrives on big challenges. Where other firms might aim to “own” a certain market niche, M3 has built its reputation not on only on experience with specific types of products, but even more so, on its incredible ability to tackle extremely challenging projects of every variety.
“We’re not so much focused on a specific type of product or a design niche as we are on leveraging our team’s incredible skill sets and process to solve almost any type of problem,” Branson explains.
Today, it seems as if the more complex or difficult a challenge is, the better M3 Design performs.
“It doesn’t matter if we’ve never done it,” Branson asserts. “We’ve got extremely bright people out here and a process to follow. We can figure it out. Period.”
Take the story of a bone mill as an example. When Stryker came in to discuss this project with Terry and his team, the medical devices & equipment manufacturing company had already purchased an organization that specifically produced bone mills. But that approach wasn’t panning out, so they enlisted the help of M3 to make a best-in-class product.
“We’d never created this type of product before,” Branson admits. “But by using our process and leveraging our team’s expertise, we not only did it—we helped Stryker capture a large share of the market.”
Sure, they’ve had some failures. Concepts and prototypes don’t always work as well as you’d hope they would. But M3 Design believes that if you’re not failing, you’re probably not innovating. So they’ve learned how to fail fast, learn fast, and move on.
“The people who work here thrive off of difficult projects,” Branson explains. “The bigger the challenge, the more we excel. Because this is a team that really wants to be challenged to be creative, solve problems, and figure things out. That project-by-project maturity is more of a personal legacy than becoming a level-3 manager somewhere else.”
And the experience they gain in doing this type of work tends to render M3 staffers invaluable.
“Someone who’s been doing a great job here for five years, I wouldn’t trade them for a person who’s been somewhere else for 15.”
This focus on challenging work helps fuel the fire of M3 Design’s obviously passionate team. But there’s another important factor at play within this group of innovators: meaning.
“We can make something really cool and get paid for it, but if the product doesn’t get used, what did we really do?” Branson asks. “Everybody here wants to work on projects that really achieve something. We definitely want our products to go to market, but we also love to work on products that actually help mankind rather than go to the landfill.”
Branson has a very personal understanding of just how impactful such a product can be. During the first 20 years of his PD career, he worked on an IV pump that was both drastically different than any other pump on the market and highly successful. But that’s not why he loved it. He loved it because it mattered. It made a difference in people’s health and well-being.
Years later, when his dad got sick, Branson sat beside him in the hospital and realized that two of those pumps were hooked up to his own father.
“You know the old term ‘where the rubber meets the road’?” he asks. “That’s where the rubber met the road. It was an extremely powerful and satisfying moment.”
It’s stories like these that make Branson a determined proponent of what he calls “finishing well.” He sadly admits that many firms take on projects for the fun, creative part, and then throw them over the fence, unconcerned with whether or not they can actually make an impact in the market and the world.
“But that’s not true success,” he insists. “Unless it’s great, goes to production, and makes it, it just doesn’t feel right. It’s not easy to finish well—it probably even costs us money sometimes—but if you don’t finish well, clients won’t come back. I know because I used to be a client of firms like this, and it was one of the things I didn’t like.”
Branson comes off as pretty low key, but this is where he gets fired up. The secret to success, he contends, is not great design or great engineering. It’s the perfect blend of the two.
“Look at it this way: I don’t care if you’re a designer or an engineer, if you go to buy a toaster and it’s ugly and difficult to use, you’re not gonna buy it. And if you put toast in it and it doesn’t work, you’re not gonna buy it either. The product has to work, damn it, and it has to be approachable and easy to use.”
That’s why, as Branson describes it, M3 is not an industrial design firm or an engineering firm. They’re a product development firm. Design and engineering are skill sets that their team must have in order to develop products. But it’s not one or the other. It’s a balance.
With that kind of talent mix, M3 has a right to aim for the best type of work—work that actually makes a difference.
“M3 is a hungry tiger,” he laughs, “but we don’t want to eat junk food. We want really good, tasty work.”
For two years before leaving Dell to start M3 Design, Branson had been keeping an eye on the cost of the hardware systems that he would need in order to start the business, and he made his move when prices were at an all-time low. He split the cost with a friend who owned a machine shop and could give Branson some office space to use as he got the business started.
“So I quit a nice, big job at Dell to go rent office space in a machine shop,” he laughs. “And I’ll tell you, the smell of machine oil was pretty stout.”
So much so that when he arrived home to Joan and his two daughters at the end of his work day, they would beg him to change his clothes in the garage before entering the house.
Branson quickly hired another friend who had recently left Tandem Computers (where he and Branson worked together a few years prior), and the pair soon began securing contracts from some of Branson’s old Bay Area contacts. Long story short: M3 Design turned a profit from day one.
Within about a year’s time, M3 had begun leasing a dedicated building and hiring more people. And by 2002, Branson had purchased the land and was finishing out the building for the Round Rock offices where M3 Design still resides today.
Just in time for the tech bubble burst.
From March 2000 to October 2002, companies saw a $5 trillion loss in market value that changed the face of the American economy for the long term. Not an ideal time for an innovation-focused company to be knee deep in new real estate and renovation.
But in a way, the building itself saved the day. A new prospect came in for a meeting and was extremely impressed with the building, the layout, the machine shop—the whole setup. The space seemed to solidify the company’s belief that M3 had the bandwidth to help in the way they needed, and they awarded the firm a nice contract—one that helped pull them out of the downturn.
Since that time, M3 Design has continued to grow and innovate. At one time, the firm got as large as 60 employees. But today they try to keep to a smaller, more agile and intimate team of about 40 standouts. To Branson, it’s still a shocking number.
“I never thought we’d get over 10 people,” he admits. “But this is the perfect size. Big enough to handle anything, small enough to stay sharp. There’s nowhere to hide here. And it’s not me or [chief operations officer] John Bernero who are going to come after you if you’re not holding your weight; it’s your peers. They’ll help you if you mess up, but if you don’t come through for them over time, it won’t be pretty.”
Sounds like a true team. And according to Branson, it’s the best team the company has ever had: “They’re builders. They’re sharp. And they know how to work together.”
After 40 years in the industry—20 on the client side, 20 on the consultant side— Branson still claims that the product development world hasn’t changed all that much over the years. But he does miss the art of the early days.
“I think there was more art to product development early in my career because it was done by hand,” he asserts. “There was a lot more sketching involved—and greater creativity generated as a result. Some of that old-school thinking would help young product developers today, and there are a lot of young people who realize that this has a lot of value, so they’re trying to get grounded in it. But in the pressure of the world today, it’s not easy to go out and make something of wood or metal. It’s not instant.”
This respect for the art of innovation probably plays a big role in Branson’s focus on hiring people who exhibit an innate creative instinct and desire to create. So when he’s interviewing candidates, there’s one question he always asks: How did you discover that you wanted to do this?
The way a person answers that question weighs heavily on whether or not he wants to hire him or her. Because Branson believes that for the best product developers, a desire to create is almost in their DNA.
“I was always building stuff ever since I was a little kid,” he explains. “That’s what I look for. I think the best software engineers were dabbling in code when they were young, electrical engineers may have been building radios, mechanical engineers grew up working on bikes or cars, designers were into art or sketching from an early age. They’re just a different breed than the people who picked this career out of a book when they were 22.”
Branson’s team talks about his 20/20 vision—a reference to the full spectrum of industry understanding he’s gained from his 20 years on the corporate side and 20 years of consulting. And there is indeed a refreshing humanity and clarity to his insights.
“We don’t just produce a product,” he insists. “We don’t produce a thing. We produce creativity and thinking, and that’s from people.”
Today, the people on his team are stepping into the forefront more and more, which is a dream come true for the company’s founder.
“As I get older and continue my work with this group,” Branson reminisces, “I’ve watched as the whole team creates and builds. So now, I’m doing it through others. I’ve been there and done that, but I get thrilled watching them take it on. The current generation is set up to build the next 20 years. I’m enjoying watching them do it.”
But with design in his DNA, he’s not about to stop. Branson still keeps a shop in his home in the country where he sketches designs by hand and builds from scratch without a technology presence.
“I like to do things a little more old school,” he smiles.
But to those around him that workshop is evidence of so much more: a spirit of innovation that only gets stronger as the years pass. A natural talent that needs and deserves and demands an outlet. An innate desire to create that, thankfully, will never quit.
“He just loves to create,” Joan says proudly of her husband. “He’s still doing it. Every weekend we go out to the country, and he’s thinking of the next project. Welding, woodwork, anything with a motor. He loves it all.”
That’s clear as can be when Branson is asked for his overall impression of the past 40 years:
“The crazy part is, when people ask me what it was like getting here, I can honestly say I’ve enjoyed the entire ride. I still like it. I like the creative part and the building part. I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”