Futureheads’ Luke Starling sat down with Sam Wilkinson, Operations Director of Neverbland, to explore what it takes to succeed in Product and Project Management.
Who are Neverbland?
Neverbland is a digital product studio that has spent the last decade partnering with ambitious entrepreneurs set on redefining their sectors. Businesses like Bulb, Lick, Feast-It, MyTrees and TogetherAll have already made big positive impacts and they are proud to support others set to do the same.
What attracted you to Neverbland?
Firstly, I wanted to work somewhere where the work had more meaning. I was working on global brands with big marketing budgets, but often the purpose of the work wasn’t really there. At Neverbland, as well as our established clients, we’re involved in the startup space, which means we’re solving new problems and uncovering new value opportunities. It’s exciting.
I wanted to work in a company that can play a role in shaping ideas and taking a creative approach to solving real problems. With all our clients, they need us to help them shape their product idea and facilitate a process of prioritisation to determine what gets implemented first in order to deliver value early.
What does a typical day look like for you as Operations Director at Neverbland?
I oversee everything we’re delivering out of the studio and head up the PM team. This means shaping briefs, mobilising teams and putting the right ways of working in place. I then support the team however needed throughout delivery.
I spend the rest of my time trying to look forward and plan ahead, both from Neverbland’s perspective and for our partners.
What are the most rewarding aspects of your role?
Above all else, it’s enabling the people in the business to succeed. Helping others to gain valuable experience and give them what they need to grow in their role is the most rewarding part for me.
We put a high level of belief in our team and watch them rise up and match it. This year, a junior member of the design team developed a new digital brand for Paul McCartney – and then got to present it to him personally! It was amazing to see that all play out.
What was your journey into your role like?
My early jobs were just office roles that were in close proximity to creative – a marketing department and then an account role as a London agency. My interest in tech meant that I naturally gravitated towards creative tech and then product studios.
Joining NB was one of those moments where I realised the fit was perfect, which is why I’ve stuck around.
What do you see as the key driver of success in your role?
I always speak to the project manager about creating the right environment for their teams to do good work. Set up the right tools, find the right balance of collaboration sessions and solo working, set the standard for how they communicate and then put them in control. If you can create this environment, then you’re doing your job and can probably afford to move out of the way and let them do what they do.
The other key thing in product development is being comfortable with ambiguity. Most of the time, the final outcome isn’t known until you arrive there and it can take a while to get a team used to moving forward without a clear picture of the end point.
What are the key skills you look for when hiring for your team?
Typically, some level of commercial experience of managing a creative process with client involvement. This is a juggling act that runs through any project you deliver. Showing an ability to represent the view of the client and the view of the team is really valuable.
Sometimes, we need strong technical skills, but often this can be learnt on the job and therefore what’s more essential is an interest in the sort of work we’re doing and why we’re doing it. Being interested in the human side of the process, as well as the practical bits.
How do you judge if a project/product has been successful?
You can normally tell by the buzz around the studio and that people are proud to have launched something.
For products, seeing people sign up to a product and start using it and getting a benefit from it is always a good feeling.
For our most successful clients, it’s often actually handing over the keys so they can start running it themselves. We did that for Togetherall this year after three years of working together and it shows how far they have come.
What projects are you currently working on?
We just launched Infarm.com, which is a sustainable vertical farming company – that was fun to learn more about. We’re actually kicking off another project in the sustainable farming space soon, so we’ll definitely be getting our veggies in for the year.
We’re also kicking off projects in mental health, volunteering, and some internal ones as well.
How are you finding the market in general, where do you see it in the next 5 years?
We certainly noticed businesses tighten their belts over the summer as the economic outlook seemed to be worsening every day. But, as always, people have now done their planning for 2023 and enquiries are coming in thick and fast.
Tech has a core role to play in any business, so our services are always needed, even if we sometimes need to be more creative with how we utilise resources to solve problems.
Over the next 5 years, I think we’ll see the trend continuing of working with more purpose-driven businesses that align with our B Corp commitments. We’re also doing more digital activation work to support our partners to drive growth post-launch. I see Neverbland becoming more of an end-to-end supplier for our partners.
Key interview advice moving into the project/product role?
Show interest in who you are speaking to. Be curious about the work. Do your research.
Be engaged and ask questions: Why are you hiring? What sort of person are you looking for? What challenges have you faced recently?
Advice you’d give your younger self?
Just ensure you’re in an environment that is stimulating you and that you’re being exposed to new things. This is where your inspiration will come from.