Inventionland: why so serious?

Hello to you, dearest readers!

How many of you have watched Toys Story and wished that they could be one of them walking in a colorful world of toys? How many of you have been to Disneyland and felt that they were inside their favorite cartoon? Right. Now, try to imagine your office being one of these imaginary sets: that’s what employees at Inventionland live everyday. Sure, you’ll tell us that it doesn’t make any sense, that it may be fun to have movie-like offices but that you would still need white cubicles because serious work can only be completed in serious offices… Are you sure about that? We visited Inventionland’s unique offices and met with Inventionland teams to get their own opinion.

Here’s what we learned.

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what inventionland is all about

Inventionland, as its name indicates, is in the “invention business”, which means that its job consists in transforming ideas into products. They design, prototype, and package them either for clients in need of new inventive and differentiating products, or who just don’t know how to go from their good idea to a packaged product. Some of their products include the cookie bowl, the can pump, and the magnetic jar.

Inventionland is one of a group of companies, managed by its founder George Davison (also known as ‘Mr D’). Inventionland itself is a team of 50 Creationeers who manage everything that’s part of the product creation food chain: inventing, making, and storytelling. Founded about 10 years ago, the company was at first pretty similar to any other company inventing products: teams working in traditional offices on various clients and products depending on what contracts they could win, and using friends’ houses and places in order to try integrating the product they were designing into a real life context.

The office: what it looks like

We could write pages and pages of office description to try to capture the essence of Inventionland’s working environment. But it still wouldn’t be enough. So we’ll let you make up your mind with these pictures. Just as a quick reminder: yes, these are actual business offices. And yes, there are actual desks, with actual working computers and actual paid employees, behind the walls.

Each set has been designed to fit a specific invention department. Here is a list of our favorite ones:

  • Children products and toys are conceived on the pirate ship
  • The treehouse is dedicated to brainstorming; its walls and ceiling are completely covered with white boards
  • The robot used to be the home of electronic products, but it is being turned into a classroom to welcome the education department

Employees also enjoy a wide break space, which includes a ping pong table, an 8-ball pool, and a huge snack bar. It’s a pretty good way to blow some steam off and go back to work with a fresh mind especially during a 10-hour day of work.

The offices are all-inclusive: if you look hard enough, you would see that sprinklers are hidden in fake tree houses, and the terrace dining rooms really are meeting rooms. Broadly speaking, Inventionland offices are just like Inventionland products. Colorful and simple, they are shown around, they are marketed, and they have a story.

What it feels like

“A giant stimulant” Tess

There definitely is a ‘wow’ effect when you first step inside these fantasyland walls. You really don’t know where to look: the place is even more impressive than on the pictures online. A lot of people tend to visit the offices (1,000/month in high season), so it kind of feels like a touristic highlight, too. And when you think you’re finally getting used to it, you hear someone telling you about working at the cave or about a meeting in the castle.

It’s not unusual to see employees driving around the offices in electric motorcycles, scooters, or taking slides to go from their office to the break room. Whenever someone wants to take a break, one can sit under a (fake) tree, lay down next to the little river, or play pool during lunch break. But overall, the atmosphere is quiet and focused. Some soothing music often plays in the background, and you can hear waterfall sounds from time to time as well.

“These offices fit better my personality.” Curtis

How they were built

It all started in 2004, when CEO George Davison wanted to improve the workplace. The core idea was to conceive new, inspiring offices that would enable more in-house production and foster creativity. For example, before, a lot of time was spent outside of the offices to record infomercials. Instead of running all over the city just to get a shot of the product in a kitchen or in a specific set, why not directly use the offices? George Davison, also called ‘Mr D’, and 2 other employees started sketching and designing such offices to make them look like store fronts of each department. But then he went to Disneyland with his kids on vacation and came back home with a whole new idea: inventors needed to be fully immersed in the sets. He gave up all the work they had done so far (which had taken 6 months of planning) and decided to start all over again, based on the Disney model. Some more sketching and designing was done, and then, feedback was requested from the rest of the team. It wasn’t all positive: some of the team members thought it was too crazy, too big. It took some more time to wrap their mind around the idea and to picture what it would be like, but the vision won them over. For the same reason, funding the whole project wasn’t a walk in the park either: traditional lenders didn’t believe in the project.

The new offices were finally released in 2006, after 2 full years of hard work. However, Nathan, who was part of the project from Day 1, insisted on this: the offices were built for the employees first. It wasn’t part of a communications or PR plot, it really was a way to improve work and how work felt like. Many employees would actually come in on weekends to build some parts of the offices themselves.

“It was for us.” Nathan

The offices’ impact on productivity and motivation

Now that you see what the offices look like, let’s find out how they manage to stay productive while having fun.

First off, let’s face the obvious: facing a white wall and looking for new and out-of-the-box ideas from inside a cubicle does not work that well. Or at least, the colorful, diversified offices they have now help them do it better. Inspiration comes more easily, as they take breaks or stroll around the candy shop. Many employees we’ve met admit that they get used to the scenery. However, they also highly expressed the fact that they never get bored either: the office layout effect still works for getting fresh ideas and feeling relaxed and uncensored, all the more since the inside of the sets is constantly being rearranged depending on their needs and focus. Visiting tours, and the visitors’ reactions, also help remember how amazing the whole place is.

Let’s move on to the more interesting, less intuitive stuff. Some employees we’ve met pointed to the fact that the previous office layout, consisting in traditional open cubicles, was unproductive. They had the feeling of being constantly ‘interrupted’, ‘distracted’, and the whole layout seemed, paradoxically, ‘less team-oriented’. Offices today are no longer built as open spaces. They’re really just different sets with 5 or 6 employees inside max, separated with walls and at a certain distance from one another. And yet, communication does not seem to be a problem. It’s all about staying stimulated while not being interrupted all the time, especially in this sector of activity, and Inventionland seems to have found the right balance, at the opposite of what other companies tend to do.

Another important feature is that everything in there is free of use for the employees. As everything is built indoor at Inventionland, beyond the sets are workshops that are 100% open to all employees (to work on wood and electronics for instance), may it be for professional or personal use, as well as shooting, sound and video studios. Most of the employees are passionate about what they do, with very strong ‘hands-on’ types of hobbies. Almost all of them build and create stuff in their free time, too. So free access to any kinds of tools within the office not only enables them to feel comfortable and to make it their own space. It genuinely fosters ideas and creativity which in turn benefits the company.

"I can continue to learn." Tess

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The offices’ impact on culture

"We have an emotional drive to share our knowledge." Clay

Corporate culture is clearly stated right from the beginning. It is very specific, too, with original myths and specific famous people they look up to. The founding myth of Inventionland is the initial failure of the self-sanitizing toothbrush holder George Davison wanted to develop. He got beat by the market, but this failure was turned into the company’s building point. Through this original myth, the idea that any failure can still lead to something productive is widely spread among team members. The corporate motto actually is: “fail your way forward”, and employees are encouraged to try, experiment and learn on a daily basis. Thomas Edison is mentioned right from the start, during the official company tour, for his tenacious character and for the success he finally reached after many failures. Henry Ford is another key figure for the simplicity of his products and the mass production he managed to accomplish. Walt Disney is the third role model that was mentioned to us, mainly for his art of storytelling.

It takes more than a cute nickname to the CEO and an efficient storytelling to create a corporate culture. Employee retention is probably one of the best bullshit tester in that area. And the employee retention at Inventionland is pretty striking. Most team members have been working at Inventionland for at least 10 years: a wide majority of them have actually never worked for any other company. We would see a lot of them wearing Inventionland ties and t-shirts. May they be otherwise nerdy or tattooed all over. This is something pretty remarkable, especially given the fact that the boss isn’t physically around that much. Because people stick around so long, they all know each other very well and today, they ‘look out for each other’. There is a true feeling of community that has been expressed, and it does seem that collaboration and communication levels are high.

"When you come here it’s hard to leave, it’s got so much to offer" Colt

Practices

From what we understood, practices and processes are very loose. We looked for them, we asked everyone about them. We got no clear answer, except from the 9-step method Davison trademarked. We finally realized why. There’s no process anymore; just habits, because people are used to work with one another and the 9-step method is so logical and obvious. It’s all spontaneous. ‘You go with the flow’ (Trevor).

Before, one person would follow the product from the first step to the last, so each and every one of the employees could get the feeling of the whole value chain. Today, things are different. Instead of focusing employees on one product, departments specialize on a specific step. There is a packaging team, an industrial design team… This is, surprisingly enough, the opposite path as the one that self-organized firms (such as FAVI) take when transitioning. In the same way, we can note that instead of trying to upscale higher and higher on a niche market, Inventionland maintains a very wide product scope (contrarily to some local competitors that tend to focus on certain segments). This is made possible thanks to the many various environments provided by the office layout.

Once again, Davison chooses the unconventional way to do things: there’s no organizational chart. Just like ANEO. However, there are 5 or 6 managers in total. Which is not that many. Though, employees do wait a long time before being promoted to being managers (it can go up to 10 years).

Strike three: the working schedule is unconventional, too. Instead of working 5 days a week, employees come in from Monday to Thursday. The workday is much longer than usual, but it also entails enjoying longer, 3-day weekends. All of the employees we’ve met mention this as a huge perk. And you’d be amazed at how much work they put into those 4 days: just to give you a rough idea of all the tremendous daily work that’s getting done inside those fantasyland walls, they build up to 200 prototypes per month. That’s right: 200 per month from just 50 employees.

"The week feels a little longer, and the week-end feels a little longer" Tess

Leadership

The leadership holds a certain importance, but it does not seem to be central to the point that the corporate culture would crumble should the CEO retire some day. George Davison is looked upon and seems to be an important figure for every employee we’ve met. He’s said to be approachable while leaving enough space too. But because employees know each other so well and have been around for so long, Mr D isn’t a sine qua non condition to the company’s sustainability anymore.

Inventionland in a sentence

Inventionland brings fostering creativity to another level through its completely immersive and Disney-like office sets that allow employees to visualize and test their ongoing inventions in real life.

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