A special 5th anniversary feature
On the occasion of Spindle’s fifth anniversary, we talk to Dr. Tina McDivitt, founder and president, about Spindle’s beginnings, its driving force and where she sees it headed in the future. It all started with wanting to fill a gap she saw, she wanted to start something different and she shares what keeps her going.
KJ: All right. Fifth anniversary interview! Okay, first question…we start real easy! When did Spindle start?
TM: Well, we sent out a launch email to our list of people that we had gathered over three months. I believe it was the third week of March of 2017. From a coffee shop, ha! We didn’t have an office yet.
KJ: Oh, I love it.
Describe your life when you started Spindle. So, like paint a picture of what your life was like personally when you had started Spindle.
TM: Okay, oh, my gosh… what was my life like? Um, well, James was… he was a year and a bit. He was at home, and Rosie was taking care of him. And so, he was pretty little. And the girls were in preschool I guess. So it was pretty hectic! I feel like I was maybe thinking of Spindle as a new baby on the way… you know what I mean?
KJ: YOU MEAN YOU WANTED A NEW BABY WHEN YOU ALREADY HAD A BABY?
TM: Haha … I guess I was just used to having a new baby every two years or always being pregnant with one! So when I was planning for Spindle, I felt like I was making the baby room or something… ok! When is this baby due? It’s coming!! … but honestly, it felt a little bit like that. Like it was a fourth kid and I was prepping for it. I don’t think of Spindle as work, I guess…it was very personal.
KJ: I guess you answered this a little bit… but what made you start Spindle — other than feeling like you needed another baby! What inspired the thought of starting Spindle?
These people are doing incredible science but having problems making it relevant, making it useful, bridging it to real world stuff, making it accessible to others.
TM: I guess there were a few things that were kind of bubbling all at once and then came together.
One thing was that when I was at my previous job at Ontario Genomics, I was interacting with a lot of the institutions and researchers who would later become Spindle’s clients. I got to really feel what their needs were and to some degree, through my job, I was able to address some of those needs. But there was this massive gap still that we couldn’t fill as a non-profit and the clients really couldn’t get those things done with other consulting firms. These people are doing incredible science but having problems making it relevant, making it useful, bridging it to real world stuff, making it accessible to others. They needed a service provider with an on the ground understanding of what their issues were. Typically, consulting companies are more hands off and expensive; and I thought who’s going to help these people? How are they going to do this? So this was one thing that was bubbling in the back of my mind: this gap that is really critical and that really has to be addressed, but there’s nobody there to support the institutions in doing that.
Then over time, there was a build up of my own confidence, that perhaps, maybe, I could be the person to help and that maybe people would trust me in doing that for them. It was something that grew over time. I was taking on more and more important projects at Ontario Genomics and I was getting to interact with a lot of science leaders and they were able to get to know me. So I felt more and more that I have trust with these people.
There was also this third kind of “bubbling”, and that was a realization that I just love doing this stuff. The planning, the problem solving, the complexity and the figuring it all out; also the creative side of things, the making of a something out of nothing! And whether that’s the concept, or the visual aspects, the storytelling or the creating of a case — that’s exciting and all that stuff is the kind of thing I really love doing.
So, it was at this point where I was feeling like, can I actually bring all of this stuff together? All of the things I love? All of this came to a head at some point and with the encouragement and support of my husband and a mentor (Dr. Mark Poznansky), I finally gained enough courage to go for it, and then I said, okay, I’m going to do it! The baby’s due!
KJ: Ha! That’s awesome. It totally is like a baby where it’s just a seed of an idea that grows and grows and so exciting what that looks like when that idea grows ripe enough. That journey isn’t always straightforward, but when it’s time, it’s time! Okay, I just put this next question down now — I keep forgetting to ask and I’ve always wanted to know this: what is behind the name ‘Spindle’?
TM: The Spindle… oh my – so weird to think of it now but I actually went through the dictionary at some point when I was trying to find a name for the company! Okay, so Spindlewas inspired by the mitotic spindle, which is a structure in a cell when the cell is going through mitosis. When the DNA doubles, and the cell splits and starts to pull apart into the two cells, there’s a thing called a mitotic spindle that helps separate the cells and the DNA. The Spindle icon looks a little bit like what a mitotic spindle looks like under the microscope, so that’s where it’s from. It’s a very prominent concept in biology and it works given that the company has a science focus. Also, I think at the time, some of the other connotations of the word ‘spindle’, also made sense with the type of work the company would be doing, like an axis that things revolve around, or a core…a centre (I was thinking of analogies to a good strategy that helps guide everything).
KJ: …or, like a centre where the threads come together.
TM: Yeah! Yes, exactly.
KJ: Cool! Now, I know! I no longer have to wonder! Now, how did you hope that Spindle was going to be different? Because knowing you, I know you wouldn’t just want to start another thing that would be the same as everything else. And you did touch upon this a little bit earlier, about how it was going to be different for your prospective clients; how you would want to be ‘more on the ground’, being there ‘in it’. This is a two-part question actually: how it was going to be different for your future clients, and also for your staff.
TM: I think there’s a core thing, and there’s a bunch of other differentiators that maybe stem from that, but I think the core thing is simply caring deeply. This is the whole “Spindle has heart” thing that we have as our first value. I know that it can sound so cliché in that way where companies like to say “We care so much about our customers!”, but I think that this is about a genuine want for connecting with our clients and also connecting as a team. And from that comes a lot of differentiators around our process, our products and the things that our clients talk about — they talk about how much we listen and how that’s so very different than what they have experienced with other consulting firms that push their process on to you: this is how it works, this is what it’s like, this is how your strategic plan is going to look like, etc. But we are able to tailor things, and it’s because of that caring that you can adapt your process and this makes people feel heard, deeply listened to, and their product feels like their own and much more meaningful as if we were part of their internal team, you know?
It’s also the same thing internally. If you’re coming from a place of open heartedness with your team, everyone’s work is high-calibre because everybody cares. Not just about the clients, but also about each other. And then it’s not about this highly regimented performance thing. When you care and listen to people it gives them space to perform in areas that they’re really good at and they can shine.
And it’s a circular thing…because the team feels cared for, they make the clients feel cared for and it serves to differentiate your product and your connection with them; in how we engage and partner with them.
We are able to tailor things, and it’s because of that caring that you can adapt your process and this makes people feel heard, deeply listened to, and their product feels like their own and much more meaningful as if we were part of their team.
KJ: Mm…yes, that’s good. I can completely see this, being with you for little over three years now. I know this to be true! What challenges did you face right at the beginning of it all?
TM: (big sigh…)
KJ: …because anytime you start anything new, obviously there are challenges, but maybe you can talk about some challenges that surprised you, that caught you off guard, perhaps.
TM: Well, I guess the thing that actually continues to surprise me is that when I went into this I didn’t think of myself as an ‘entrepreneur’, I didn’t think about and I didn’t read up on–in anyway–or connect with this idea that I was undertaking this huge venture, and that I’m an entrepreneur and that I must be really okay with taking risks and okay with failing multiple times or whatever. I still don’t think of this as my identity.
For me it was very much about the big gap that I saw that I can help with, and just knowing that that’s what I was going to do, you know? But then of course I’ve faced real, actual entrepreneurial challenges – like realizing that if I want to pay myself next month, I need to have not just a project, but a cheque from that project, in the bank, LIKE TOMORROW. So, I guess we call that my introduction to ‘cash flow’… ha!
Oh and the hustle of it, the pounding-the-pavement, trying to get clients and stuff like that. I’m a driven person, so it’s not like I mind the hard work, and it wasn’t like I didn’t know that I had to do this to some degree, but I wasn’t expecting to have to engage with this ‘entrepreneur identity’ and I don’t think I ever did and I don’t think I still do. But I guess that’s been the biggest surprise: that I am an entrepreneur and I I do have to deal with those challenges from time to time!
KJ: I totally get what you’re saying. It’s like all the STUFF that’s involved in getting to do what you WANT to do, but you’re very focused on wanting to do THE work – Hey everyone! I want to do the work. Can someone just hand it to me? I just want to do the work!
TM: Yes, yes, that exactly.
KJ: My question was going to be what have been the challenges of the last five years, but you already answered that in the last question… it’s just this ongoing entrepreneur thing that you’re still growing into, and of course that makes sense.
TM: Yup! Still growing into it.
KJ: So let me ask you then, what are you most proud of right at this moment, as you reflect on the fifth anniversary of Spindle?
KJ: I know that you don’t like to be braggy, but there has to be something! You have permission to be braggy… it’s the fifth anniversary!
TM: (Sigh) Okay, this is a little abstract, so I don’t know… maybe you can help me pull it out but it’s the thing that makes me feel really good about how far we’ve come, it’s the way that I’ve figured out how to float a little bit over top of those typical pressures about growing a business, like you know, being aggressive! Getting your share of the market! finding your niche! What are the numbers?! What are the performance goals?!
And not to say that I don’t engage with those ideas but having a higher purpose or being mission-driven has allowed me to not get collapsed into any of those things in an unhealthy way… And I found that operating this way, those business results eventually just fall into place on their own — including the team, and being able to build this team in the midst of this very intense COVID situation where talent is hard to come by! Being able to gel a group together that’s high performing and helping to grow that caring and deep connection with our clients that goes beyond JUST me, you know? I think this was only able to happen because I have managed to not collapse into this aggressive WE’VE GOT TO BUILD THIS THING RIGHT NOW, but instead, sticking to, and trusting in our mission especially during the hard times. Without this guiding principle, every business decision then becomes so painstaking because you’re trying to differentiate yourself in a market where everyone’s trying to get their share with the perfect marketing ploy… and you’re in that, and in there, and you’re feeling constantly that you have to make these “sound” business decisions, whereas if you are able to come above that, and make decisions based on your company’s mission, all of a sudden there is a lot of clarity, like ‘this doesn’t make sense for our company’, or ‘this person is not a good fit for our team’, or ‘this project IS a great fit for our company even if it’s not the most profitable ’ but you know that this will lead to a strong relationship with a client and have a greater impact and that will lead you into deeper connection that will generate new business.
Now, this is not to say that I have done this perfectly, but I’m proud that I don’t stay in the weeds when I do fall into all of the typical aspects of running a business, but I am able to come out of it and work to stay connected to the mission and I know that it sounds weird, but it’s the thing that makes me feel good and proud because the ‘caring’ is the higher purpose and the mission is to make a difference for the world through science. And the more I am able to keep myself there, the better the results. I think this is unusual for a business because leaders and entrepreneurs, and CEOs are more often focused on what percentage they were able to increase the revenue by and how many people are on the team and how many new clients and how many new partnerships and that this is what a successful business looks like and yes, it’s great for Spindle to be thriving in all those areas too, but I don’t want to measure success in business ONLY by these metrics. Those are outcomes, but they’re not our ultimate goals. As long as you’re connected to that bigger ultimate goal, these outcomes will come on their own. So I’m proud of believing in that, I guess… at least most of the time! Sometimes I get worried, these ARE business realities and to be completely disconnected from those is obviously not good business sense, but I am proud of being centred around a core mission instead.
KJ: Yes, though abstract, it makes sense and I get what you’re saying. If we’re only driven by results, that’s how the ‘caring’ gets sucked out. And it sounds like you have to weather less emotionally.
TM: Absolutely…totally. Things kind of like…flow… it’s much less emotionally draining.
KJ: So, what is your next dream for Spindle? Where do you see Spindle headed in the next five years?
TM: Hmm… I think a dream would be getting involved with more larger scale, more complex initiatives that are pivotal in moving Canada into the 21st century, so to speak, in terms of how we’re leveraging our brains, the research and the science to actually make life better for everyone. I think that there is so much here. And I would love Spindle to become a go-to place for governments, and networks of institutions and organizations that really want to move the needle — for Spindle to be supporting them in that kind of work. I guess in practice it just means that we stay on the trajectory we’re on—and the types of projects that we’re on—but larger scale, greater complexity, and not just being a service provider, but also helping to inspire those kinds of projects and catalyze… seed the impetus for strategic government investments in science and innovation, to help move the research findings and knowledge that’s coming out of the universities in Canada into, let’s say, our own health care system, and into our own education system. I want Spindle to be supporting these major initiatives that are super complex and require an overhaul of our current ways of thinking and doing.
KJ: Okay! I see a lot of conference speaking in your future then!
KJ: You put it out there, here it comes! Haha… so actually this is the last question I have for you, but I think that you have already answered it. What is Spindle’s secret sauce? I already know: Spindle has heart.
TM: That’s right. And yeah, it’s not so secret.