HATTIE: Hi, I'm Hattie Bryant. What is it within us that pushes us to reach for
the stars? Is it money? Fame? I don't think so. On this television show you
hear a lot about bringing ideas from mind to market.
Well, today we go into one of the best industrial design firms in the world. A
hotbed of creativity. A wonderful melange of personalities and nationalities;
they reach for a higher perfection and get there. They may call it
visioneering. I rather think it's the soul of the American economy.
Did you ever wonder where all the gadgets and gizzmos we use every day
come from? We'll show you. Let's go to Portland, Oregon to meet the rock
star of industrial design. The place is called Ziba Designs and the founder is
SOHRAB: Design is a continuum. It never ends, you know, once you do
something, you know it can be done better.
SOHRAB: We are a brand consultancy with our expertise in product
development ... developing brands in the dimension of spaces.
HATTIE: In 2001, Ziba became the first firm in the world to ever win four
Gold Awards in the annual Industrial Design Excellence Awards Competition
run by the Industrial Designers Society of America. In fact, no firm in the
world has won as many awards per employee as has Ziba. Must mean --
small is beautiful.
SOHRAB: Ziba means beautiful in Farsi, which is the language of Persians.
I wanted to come up with a name that was easy to say, easy to spell and at
the same time has a meaning. “This is really nice – I mean, the way it tapers
down to – that's nice.” From the beginning, I never had limitations in my
mind about what can be done and what cannot be done. I always question
things, “What if? What if?” The word “what if” is very important.
So, I suggest that people should take these limitations that people make for
themselves in their mind away and start challenging what is norm. And then
say,” why should something be like that and what if it was like this?” And
then see what comes out of it.
HATTIE: In 1970, when he was 14 years old, Sohrab came to this country
from Iran and he became a US citizen one year later. By 1984, he had
finished college and had some big business experience. With a couple of freelance projects under his belt and a total of $400, he quit his job with the goal to solve problem's through innovative design.
HATTIE: Why is this product so important to Ziba?
SOHRAB: This product, the Cleret Squeegee, is actually the product that
really launched us. It got a lot of publicity.
There was this accountant from Nike, who would do some work for Nike, and
he found out about us. He had just bought this house in one of the suburbs of
Portland. And the house had clear glass shower doors. And in order to
preserve the clarity of the glass, you know have to usually wipe the glass
after you take a shower. You either use a squeegee or you use a towel.
Basically he said, “If I can sell a nice looking squeegee, I think there is a need
We found that the T-handle on the squeegee is actually created for reach --
to be able to extend your hand above your height to clean the windows. And
also, for the inside enclosure of the shower it is very tight, and you can't use
that – it is very cumbersome.
HATTIE: So in one year you sold how many?
SOHRAB: He sold 16 million dollars worth of these, in one year – in the
second year. And he had two people, himself and one other salesman. So you
can imagine – 8 million dollars per employee.
This is in a permanent collection in the Smithsonian Museum. And was in the
Museum of Modern Art – it was in their store selling too. And became – it has
been on the cover of many books and magazines about design.
So it has been a very famous product and really people connect us and relate
us to “Oh, these are the people who did the Squeegee.”
HATTIE: You are the Squeegee guy.
SOHRAB: Yeah, the Squeegee guys. (pause)
HATTIE: Now, in addition to the home office in Portland, there are offices in
Tokyo, Taipei, Boston and San Jose staffed by a total of 80 people from 17
countries who are generating nearly 12 million in annual sales.
Clients include Intel, Hewlett Packard, McDonald's, FedEx, Procter & Gamble,
Rubbermaid, Nike, Microsoft, Ford and Whirlpool -- The Who's Who of big
In the lobby of Ziba headquarters just a few of its creations are on display.
SOHRAB: This was a huge success, because Microsoft wasn't actually in this
market at all. This was the first keyboard for the masses; that's what I call it.
They were thinking about they would sell 600,000 of these a year – but after
three months, it was shot up to about 600,000 a month. That was just mindboggling king of success.
This is a huge success story, Coleman the camping stove guys, came to us
and said “Here is our brand, and this is what it stands for. We want to get
into the home market.”
We did a lot of research and we actually created this (holding a smoke
detector) – again another strategy for them -- we created a broom button
HATTIE: Oh, so that is for a broom handle – you just go pop.
SOHRAB: It's concave, it's large so that when it goes on all you have to do is
get a stick and push it.
HATTIE: That was too simple wasn't it?
SOHRAB: Usually the best designs are the simple designs.
HATTIE: is this selling?
SOHRAB: Coleman went from no presence to 40% market share.
HATTIE: No – you guys are good!
NANCY PINNEY: We are able to look at things from a very strategic point of
view – looking at what the user needs from the overall experience. It's not
just about holding that product or looking at that product and the aesthetic of
it. It's about turning it on, using it, moving it around. How you use it, what
you are using it for, what are the different users that use this and what are
their particular needs.
RICH FOX: Ziba's philosophy is by looking at the entire context of how a
problem is supposed to be solved or how a product exists or a service exists
in the world. We can really narrow and focus what the creative activity or the
creative guys are supposed to be looking at – so we're solving very specific
SOHRAB: We are never satisfied with what we design. If we ever become
satisfied in what we do then that's the end of us. Meaning that there is
always a better way to do it. There is always a way to enhance it. You know
we are against schedules, we are against budgets; but we take the budgets
and the schedules that we have – the commitments we have to the client –
and we do our best. But, would we be able to do better? Of course, we are
always looking for a better way to do it. And, that's the way you drive
HATTIE: The design philosophy of Ziba is spelled out -- strive for simplicity,
innovation, human-centered interaction, visual interest and efficiency. Teams
are constantly at work in one of Ziba's five project phases. First, they must
understand the emotional and rational needs of the customer, the client and
RICH: You are looking at all of these different perspectives and you are
finding which ones are the most relevant for driving the creative process.
HATTIE: Then, they conceive a concept – next, they capture ideas and
articulate them in words, drawings and forms.
SOHRAB: We have a radius on the bottom and we have this ball joint ...
HATTIE: This phase is followed by the creation of a prototype and finally, the
real product is born. (pause)
ILDEFONSO RESUELLO: We are making speakers.
HATTIE: The Styrofoam is an inexpensive way for designers to feel the
product before it goes downstairs into the shop for real prototype building.
JAMIAN COBBETT: You can draw things that aren't actually possible. So, you
get into 3D and that is when you actually find out the way the form works,
the way it feels. It is very different from the way it looks on a sketch to how it
actually feels once it is in your hands.
ILDEFONSO: It is almost like a lie. The fact that you don't really know how
the surfaces behave. In 3D, you resolve all of that. You hope to get
essentially the character of the product. (music)
SOHRAB: Word of mouth is the best way to bring in work. And that happened
-- from day one – that project was our only project, that client was our only
client. And we did our best for that client and we delivered way beyond what
we promised. And the client expectation was always over delivery. We are
our own worst competitors. We are like – I always tell everybody – we are
like athletes. You try to beat your own time. We have a mission, we have a
goal and that goal is to be the best in everything that we do. Anything that
we have brought in – any service that we have brought in has been
demanded to make it the best that there ever was – (pause)
HATTIE: In Portland, Oregon – Sohrab serendipitously found a great place to
build a business. Even in this rainy place, plenty of employees prefer to ride –
not drive -- to work. Ziba provides safe parking.
RICH: That is one of the most compelling things about coming to Ziba was
that there are people from all over the world here. And there are people from
so many different backgrounds. And you always have different attitudes and
values that are kind of bubbling up. So you just learn a lot about the world on
it's own just being in these four walls. And I think we represent – over the
years that I have been here – we've represented maybe 12 or 15 distinct
STEVE MCCALLION: Culture is not just nationality, but culture is also all the
different backgrounds people bring here. Which is a pretty compelling piece of
the story as well.
RICH: My first degree is in cognitive science which I got at the University of
Rochester in upstate New York and my second degree is a graduate degree in
NANCY: It's definitely a cross-discipline, team-oriented experience – so -- we
pull in people across all different disciplines.
RICH: I'm more or less a third generation American – although I'm Jewish.
It's a fascinating little tidbit, because we have this Muslim boss and a Jewish
co-worker. But, really – not really and issue here which is very cool.
Everybody is pretty respectful of one another.
JAMIAN: It is renowned internationally through the ISA awards. It's won quite
a few over the years.
HATTIE: So, as a kid did you know about Ziba and say to yourself, “hey, I
want to go to America and be there?”
JAMIAN: Through college – yes – America is very attractive for our
profession. Basically, industrial design was born in America. Raymond Loewy
– it was kind of developed here – so this is kind of like coming to Mecca, you
have to come to America to see where it has all come from.
AARON HAYES: I knew about it from the beginning in school, everybody
knows about Ziba. I kind of made it a goal when I was in school to get an
internship there -- or here. And everybody said, “Ah, Good luck.” But I did
the same thing, I called these guys and pestered them.
HATTIE: So what's the difference in working for a really big company and a
company like this size -- because this isn't tiny, this isn't small small small –
but it's a small business?
JONATHAN DALTON: It's fast paced and you can work on a wide variety of
projects, which is great. And you also get to interact with the client. When
you are interacting corporate, it is not quite the same dynamic – which
makes it interesting.
ERIC PARK: We operate with two types of contacts. This is something that we
learned over time that really helps. So we have a program director and we
have a project manager. In some other professional services or situations, a
program director might be called an account manager. But, what
differentiates the program director – at least in our minds -- from an account
manager is that we have both a deep capability and experience and an
appreciation of doing the work itself.
That makes us actually the ones that aren't just trying to manage a relationship. We are also actually responsible for giving our clients the confidence that “Hey, Ziba can get the right job done for you and do it well.”
HATTIE: Why do you think you all are so good at what you do? What do you
think are the components that cause you all to win all of these awards? That
your customers keep coming back – or clients come back over and over. I
mean what is it?
HENRY CHIN: Internally, we all strive for perfections. Maybe that is what it is
– the quality we push in ourselves. And as a whole, we push the quality of
the total of the company.
NANCY: We're not just creatives here. I think, we're creatives that think. We
have very strong business sense. And that comes through in the research
that we do and our strategic approach. So it's a marriage of the both. It is
thinking design, it's not just doing design.
HATTIE: Creativity. What is it? What makes us want to do something better,
cheaper and faster? I don't think it is just competition. I don't think it is just
financial reward. Bruce and I talk about this frequently and he believes we
are all inherently striving for a higher perfection. And those of us who are
not, have simply lost our vision and hope for the future. You really won't find
many couch potatoes among small business people.
Look at Sorhab and his team. They are constantly struggling for insights and ideas. Sure, they have the luxury -- they get paid just to look at something for highly energized periods of time and they ask the question, “How can we do it better?” They are forever pushing the equations that balance form and function.
But look at that wonderful diversity of people. The different nationalities. Backgrounds. Personalities. That is a special stew that is brewing. Perhaps the thing we can all learn from these bright teams of enthusiastic thinkers, is simply this, “Take time to think.” And its corollary, “Explore new ideas with a diversity of other people.”
HATTIE: Bob Marchant is a friend, mentor and customer to Sohrab and he is
founder of Modo, a healthcare products manufacturer. The two of them meet
as often as they can to discuss the current challenges they both face in
running their companies.
BOB MARCHANT: Well, Ziba is – in my mind – one of the top five design firms
in the world. They have created products for leading global brands all over
the world. And their products have been consistently successful.
One of the things that differentiates Ziba is that all of their designers are informed, all of their designs are informed by economics. They understand that it does no good for a product to win an award but not make a profit for the customer or for the client that is actually bringing it to the market place. So in designing products for large technology companies or for large medical device
companies, the Ziba folks understand that it is not enough for the form to be
interesting or exciting – or for the form to generate market acceptance. It's
important for the form to be profitable, for somebody to be able to make it
and for it to work reliably.
HATTIE: After Sohrab discovered that a bookkeeper was embezzling, and a
mentor told him the business needed a CFO, he hired his brother, Sia.
SIA VOSSOUGHI: We got to a point about 7 - 8 years ago – where we were
stuck at a certain revenue. We couldn't push over that and it was chaotic and people were trying really hard and everything else, but it just wouldn't happen. So we sat down and we actually strategized, we brought a couple of – our clients were MBA graduates and they sat down with us and they strategized about where we wanted to go in the next 5 years. And based on that also we decided what type of infrastructure we needed. We realized that in order for us to grow, we needed to figure out how best to retain the individuals who are here and one of the tools that we are using is our ability to give stock options to individuals.
HATTIE: Okay, let me get this straight. You are now allowing employees to
SIA: That's correct.
HATTIE: That's great. Okay, so when did you start that? How did you do it –
what instruments? Did you go to a stockbroker, your attorney – to put this all
together -- how does that happen?
SIA: We went to our attorney and then we also have a human resources
consultant working with us to put a plan together. When our employees get
reviewed – which is once a year – everybody gets reviewed. It is a 360
degrees review -- and the group director, their direct reports, they suggest
the name of the individuals who should be compensated – just not in cash
wise but also in stock situation – to this committee of three. Which is my
brother Sohrab plus two other individuals, two other employees. And then,
they make a decision about how many shares of option are given to each
HATTIE: So they are given this stock. If I worked here, I couldn't write you a
check and buy some.
HATTIE: I have to earn it by my contribution. SIA: That is correct.
HATTIE: So did your attorney put in place?
SIA: Yes. It is an Employee Stock Ownership Plan or ESOP, as they call it.
HATTIE: An ESOP. Right. And the people that have stock are staying?
SIA: That is correct. And they share in major decisions of the company. We
let them join the management group in making decisions that affects the
SOHRAB: One of my golden rules is that what is good for the goose is good
for the gander. Whatever is good for me should be good for the next person.
If you want them to feel like this is their own company, give them what you
JONATHAN: I think the thing the surprised me most when I got here is that
Sohrab actually sits in the same office with everyone else. I have worked in
corporate environments and other consultants -- when I came here and saw
that he actually sat in the corner of the room, that was a really big thing for
me. He wasn't closing himself off or putting himself away from the people
who work for him. You know, he is in there, right in the middle of it.
NANCY: It's great to have a leader that you can go to and throw these
creative ideas off of and he gets it.
AARON: He is like anybody else that you hear about a lot and you admire
from afar and that you read about in magazines. You don't really know them
as a person, and then you get here and you get to work with them. It's great,
it is such a learning experience.
SOHRAB: Anything you make, you put back into the business. That's what I
used to do. For the first six months, I didn't take a single dime out of the
We had our savings; we got rid of the house, we lived with one car, we did
everything – you sacrifice.
There is a saying back home in Persia that says, “For one year you eat bread
and water – then you can eat bread and butter for the next ten years.”
HATTIE: How does that sound in Farsi?
SOHRAB: (translation in Farsi)
HATTIE: Okay, so if I eat bread and water for a year and then for 10 years
you eat bread and butter. Meaning that you have got to really sacrifice – it is
hard at the beginning. If you want to really make it – you have to sacrifice.
SIA: Most people who come from another country recognize the opportunities that this country offers. And basically, we recognize how easy it is to start you own business, to grow your own business and to basically be successful over here.
SOHRAB: We have a lot of foreign nationals here within Ziba -- over 17
different nationalities – and I have heard from many of them because we sit
down and talk. Someone said, “This is immigrant syndrome.” I ask, “What is
They say, “You know what opportunity is in this country, because you have a
frame of reference.”
Truly, this is the land of opportunity. There is no question about it – I can
attest to it. This is the land of opportunity. If you work hard and if you really
have integrity and be honest, you can do a lot.
People ask me, “What gives you inspiration?” I say, “Everything.”
I am walking around, I look at the floor, I see a pattern, I see a design, I see
a writing, I see a shape. And that could be the answer for a problem I have
been trying to solve for a long time. So, looking for answers in everything is
very important and then being able to see it. And every time you have a
different problem you look at the same thing – you see a different answer.
I didn't start the business because of money. I started because I loved what I
was doing and I started to have so much more that I can offer and that I can
do for people. I can use my creativity and my talent for different things. I
can't wait to get up in the morning and come to work. After 17 years, it's still
fun. With all the problems and the things – because there are always
problems - I love challenge. Everything that happens, every obstacle that
comes up, every issue that comes up at Ziba, I look at as a challenge and a
problem to solve. And that is our business – we are problem solvers.
Ten years ago, I came in one day to Ziba -- this is a story I tell everybody --
I came into Ziba and I saw a computer (where my drafting table was). I am
from the old school, I use the drafting table. I know how to use the computer,
but only for word processing and for some of the other email and stuff like
that – I don't know how to design on the computer. I would like to learn it
but I have not had the chance to do that.
So, I came in and I saw my drafting table gone. They said, “Oh, we have a
new employee.” They took mine and they put it in front for this guy.
It was a sad day and also a big day of realization for me. I called my friend
who is an advisor to the company. He said, “How are you doing?” I said, “I
am not doing well; today I came in and my drafting table was gone. I feel like
I am no longer a designer. I know that I wasn't using it, but now I think that
all these years that I went to school and everything to be a designer and I am
no longer a designer, I am an administrator running a business.”
He told me something; he said, “Sohrab, don't forget, you are still designing
but at a different level. Everything you do is about design.”
And I look at it that way and I realize that Ziba is my design project. I am
building it and designing it and redesigning it every day. So I'm not done with
HATTIE: Take time to think, to dream, to explore the inner recesses of your
mind. You might be shocked to find wonderful new insights that help make
our world a better place.
HATTIE: For the 15 million of you who operate a one-person business,
remember Sorhab started at his kitchen table. You may want to stay there,
but to grow, spend time with people with different backgrounds and
disciplines. The cross fertilization of ideas may jumpstart next new revenue
THE CLOSING OF THE SHOW: ". . . the only way to compete with big
business is to be faster, smarter and better. We are the engine of the
American economy. We create the jobs. . .
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HATTIE: If you want to learn more about starting, running and growing a
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HATTIE: the only way to compete with big business is to be faster, smarter
and better. We are the engine of the American economy. We create the jobs.
HATTIE: Small business is about big commitment, it's about sacrifice and
struggle. But we do it because we say “If I don't do this, my life won't be