TJ Zark – 955 Dreams 1 of 2

“Design is essentially the chaos of the white canvas.” 955 Dreams allows you to discover and experience Jazz music with their History of Jazz iPad app.

Matthew: Hi, this is Matthew Wise, founder of We empower entrepreneurs to have a voice and share their story with the world enabling others to learn about building products and starting companies. So I’m very excited to be with T.J. Zark.
She is one of the founder of 955 Dreams. T.J. is a user experience, user interface designer and they have built an incredible iPad application, The History of Jazz and so T.J., we were hoping you could give us a brief bio of yourself so our audience can know who you are.
T.J.: Sure. I thought I would spend my life as a designer and probably thought I would do that in print rather than branding and marketing kind of things, and so I immediately began a love affair with the Mac. What emerged out of me was kind of my emotional IQ and I began to continually ask the question, why do we want to do this? Why would it work this way? How do we really emotionally engage people with what we’re doing? Why does it matter? Why will anybody care?
What that did with my career was basically float me up to a place that people would often refer to as a producer. So they’d bring me in to say we have this puzzle or this problem that we need the computer to solve, but we need people to care about it and truly engage and we need this thing to solve our problem.
So I worked for people like Coca-Cola, I did a handheld project with Microsoft for a kids device in their tablet department that eventually didn’t make it to the market because it had battery size problems like too heavy, too big for the kids, but I would be brought in really early oftentimes as a concept person to drive teams toward a different kind of thinking about solving problems.
I worked on a project with The Ministry of Education in China and The U.S. Department of Education here to say, how do we begin to foster relationships between young Chinese kids and our kids and share language and culture in a way that’s meaningful so that in ten years we have this great relationship using speech recognition.
So the technology side has always been very important, but to me that’s a given, like this technology should just work. The experience is usually the bigger puzzle. There’s always someone who can build the technology and so that’s really been kind of the defining bookends of what I’ve done is to bring visual design, but really more the questions of why are we even doing what we’re doing and can we prove that out to be worth something to somebody.
Matthew: So how does 955 Dreams empower individuals and users and why are you so passionate about it?
T.J.: Well, I believe that this tablet, this very first iteration of the tablet is the most green piece of technology we’ve ever had. It was the smartphone world right, but it wasn’t a big enough platform. You can really display something. You can really interact with something on this tablet, and so it was just hugely exciting to me and I think that it allows digital material to be intimate for the very first time in a way that it never has been.
It’s something you can curl up with, it goes right under your arm, I take it to the city, it goes in a bag when I travel. It’s the most intimate little device I’ve ever seen and so what we’re trying to do is really utilize all of that. It’s not about whiz bang right? It’s about how can this truly be this wonderful experience that you get to have with this device and then share with others and so that kind of informs our decisions and what we do.
Matthew: What are some of the more important customer feedback that you’ve gotten regarding your application?
T.J.: The first release there were little things. I think we’ve done a lot of user testing and we really put it in front of some people, so we got through some of the ill-thought ideas that we had to go and say, oh we’ve assumed some things here that aren’t working, so we got through those before we released it. I think on the positive side the most surprising feedback was from teachers.
They saw this as an opportunity to turn young people onto a topic that didn’t seem to be sexy before right? Suddenly it’s cool and they’re seeing the story behind the genre, not just it’s jazz and there’s all these scales and I’ve got to learn modalities and now they’re stories of people and kind of how it emerged and so teachers are super excited about it. I think that was my favorite feedback that we got.
Matthew: And we think that a lot of people admire entrepreneurs because they tend to make it look easy to start things, start companies and we know it’s a lot of work. You’re a user experience designer. Besides the technical aspects of that, what talent or what skills come easy to you? What’s helped launch 955 Dreams?
T.J.: Well I have really spent my whole career with entrepreneurs. Those are the interesting people to me, so I’ve seen a spectrum of people. I think what’s easy for me in this environment is building a team. How do you help people integrate into such a dynamic culture, create a secure place for them to be successful? I find those things easy to do.
I think one of the critical skills to be an entrepreneur really is your capacity for chaos. You have got to be able to handle a lot of chaos, on the people side, on the decision side, on the financial side, and you have to be able to manage that to the point of calm and order again and then it’s going to blow up and be chaos in two weeks.
I think that I have a great capacity for chaos, which is why the design stuff works, because design essentially is chaos of the white canvas right? There’s nothing there and you have to have the confidence to emerge something from that. The same thing is true with a company. You think it’s a blank canvas for about five minutes and then it’s just nothing but insanity for a while. Can you weather that?
Matthew: And so when you were looking for co-founders what qualities were you looking for?
T.J.: I thought that was such an interesting question, because I actually was looking for co-founders. I knew that I was weary of the multi-client situation and I wanted to truly focus singularly. What happens when you have multiple clients your design aesthetic gets watered down. You have deadlines to meet, you have a lot of people’s needs and to go into a singular entity you can pour yourself more purely and a more pure vision of what you want to do emerges.
I essentially had just been waiting for the right guy to show up. I wanted my peer on the technology side. I didn’t know I would get a product man like [Kiran], but I knew that I wanted my peer. I wanted somebody who had the chops to execute anything I could think of. When I met him in a parking lot at an open house he showed me what he’d done and I’m like, bing, bing, bing, you’re the guy.
He didn’t just have an idea, he had executed and what he had executed, the level of detail, the craftsmanship of it was flawless and I’m like, I’m in, what’s it take?


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