Mitchell Lawson: Rescue Swimming, Special Projects, & Man’s Search For Meaning
29 min 47 sec
Published on January 20, 2021
Mitchell joined the US Navy at the age of 19. After serving six years in the military, this rescue swimmer pursued his business administration degrees and took up a position at the renowned travel publishing company, Lonely Planet.
He played a major role in transitioning his company to a digital-first mindset, quickly adding new features to get content to their users in the ways they've needed the most. In this episode, he shares his future plans, what he would’ve done differently, how COVID has been a blessing in disguise, and about the book he reads over and over again (that you’ve just got to put on your reading list this year).
Resources he recommends:
I think social media is overwhelmed with algorithms and throwing everything that they think you want in your face. I think people are starting to- users are starting to realize that. I don't think that's any different in the travel industry.
Hello, I'm Piyush Poddar. And you're listening to Humans Behind DX Podcast, where I talk to leaders from digital agencies and organizations delivering awesome digital experiences. Today, I'm going to talk to Mitchell Lawson, Director of Digital Product at Lonely Planet. Welcome, Mitchell.
Hey, thank you for having me.
A pleasure to have you here, Mitchell. Do you want to introduce yourself?
Yes, I'm Mitchell Lawson. As he said, I'm the Director of Digital Product at Lonely Planet, primarily, the lonelyplanet.com product as well as a little bit to do with budget travel and our mobile applications. I live in Nashville, Tennessee, the headquarters of Lonely Planet right now. And it's a pleasure of working or being here today with you.
And Mitchell, can you talk a bit more about your early career? And you know, what did you do post your graduation? And how did you pivot your way to where you are today? Do you want to talk us through that journey of it?
Sure. It's a little bit of a whiny one, but it's down here nonetheless, so... I grew up in a small town, outside Austin, Texas, small country town, decided to go to college at a university called Texas Tech in northwest Texas for about a year. I quickly realized that I didn't have the maturity to continue on that journey at that present time. So opted in to join the military at 19, decided to join the Navy and became a United States rescue swimmer. So flew in the back of 860 helicopters for the US Navy on primarily rescue missions and humanitarian missions.
From that point, I was able to pursue my business degree. I felt like I grew up enough at that point to stay focused long enough. Graduated from Saint Leo's University in Florida with a bachelor's in Business Administration. And then continued on to get my master's in business administration from Florida State. Served the military six years quick, shortly after the part in the military, moved to Nashville, and was interviewed at a few jobs. With no tech background at all, I found myself at Lonely Planet. And there was a position that was created for me, called Special Projects. Special Projects was essentially- we have a bunch of things that nobody wants to do, can you do them? And I said, I'll figure it out. So that's kind of my introduction into Product Management at that time. And, and trying to make things out of nothing. And then that progressed into the role I'm in today.
That's really interesting. And you know, in particularly, your early career where you were working for military as a rescue swimmer. And you also said, you're used to man the helicopters, right?
It must be a pretty active and exciting job you had there? Do you still feel a gap in your current position where you mostly work with digital and tech and computers, and you don't have like, you're not getting into those real life scenarios or situations where you are solving big problems? Or are you still are?
I feel like I still am. With the military, obviously, it's more in your face. The problems you're solving, and they have to be solved on the spot for various different situations. But today, I mean, you're solving problems or solving problems for users. You know, trying to give them a better travel experience and figure out how they're wanting to travel or the information we have, how can we surface that in the best way possible. So you're still solving problems, it's just a little harder to be connected to the real life scenario. And it's a little bit more difficult to connect to the actual user on the other side of the screen. But it's still possible from a product perspective. And yeah, I think the military kind of forces you to do it in real time. But I think some of that still translates to a digital experience. You just between screens instead.
Yeah. Correct. Now, you know, and do you think today when you look back, is there anything you would have done differently? You know, maybe a different job, maybe, you know, do something more? Do something less?
Yeah, I think there's always things you can look back and improve on or things, you know, time that was wasted or not being as productive as you could have been or learning something or helping somebody. There's always something. I mean, there's things last week I would have done differently. But you just got to keep progressing and learning every day and taking those those mistakes or failures in the past and converting them to successes in the future. So, yeah.
Tons of things I'd do differently.
Yeah. And I remember, Lonely Planet, you know, back in days, and this is probably 20 years back. So, you know, I moved to a city in India, which was a pretty important tourist place. And you know, a lot of tourists will be carrying this thick book in their hand, a lot of times, and then that's when I came to know about Lonely Planet. And now I believe it's all digital, or a whole lot of it is digital. How have you been involved with that strategy of moving more towards digital? Do you want to talk a bit about, you know, the initiatives or larger projects that you have on a strategy level been involved with?
You know, the biggest part, or you know, one of the greatest parts working for Lonely Planet is you often meet people that come up and say, I used to always use Lonely Planet. I used to, I wouldn't go anywhere without Lonely Planet, right? The problem that we started to see was the past tense, right? It was, it was pre-pre-digital era, and you had that guidebook of a brand that you could trust, a brand that you loved, and you could take with you anywhere, and know that it's relatively accurate information. Obviously, as you as the world transition digital, that you know, if something else printed today would be out of date tomorrow.
And from a digital perspective, we were fortunate enough to get a great CEO to come in and give a digital-first feature, we still do print, print is a large aspect of our business. And I think it will be for the foreseeable future. But with the new strategy that came in, we had to transition to a digital-first mindset. My role, specifically, over the past couple of years had been to transform, a very, we had a tech presence, but it was very diluted, it was spread out across multiple systems. And our goal is to consolidate that to one manageable system on a modern tech stack, which we were able to accomplish, still a lot to improve on. But we were able to consolidate a massive website into a more manageable one with a relatively small team. And that was just to allow scalability and growth for future vision that our CEO is bringing in. And that's really been, you know, the past couple years of our team's life has been focusing on providing- getting the platform to stay, where we can scale quickly and add quickly, new features, new ways to get content to our users in the ways they've needed the most. And that's, you know, really, really the vision our CEO set in, and we're just, we're out trying to accomplish that.
I love it when you say, you know, helping people daydream about places that they'd like to go or want to go. And then obviously, you know, when they do, help them be ready with a plan, be ready with, you know, things that you would like to do there. You know, for someone looking for, you know, an advice from you, or anyone trying to reach this kind of a stage where they'd like to be in leading positions or driving digital transformations- do you have any advice in terms of, you know, the kind of path that they should take or any specific traits that they could focus on? Anything you'd like to share with our audience? Think about someone who's 22 years old, right, and, you know, they're just starting their career. Any quick advice you'd have for them?
Quick advice. I think the biggest opportunities that have opened for me have been doing things I didn't want to do. And there's always going to be time to do like, everybody has that goal that they want to be working the best position, the best role in a company or that specific thing that they're just super passionate about. But I think there's a lot of parallel paths instead of waiting in line to get somewhere. There's a lot of paths that you can take that don't necessarily... it doesn't seem like it'll get you where you want to go, but it opens doors where you don't think, you may not even realize.
I wasn't a tech person. I didn't even know about product management as I was going through my business degree. Honestly, probably, would have not got a business degree if I would have known about the world that I would have ended up in- I would have been getting a computer science degree or going to a coding boot camp or something along that lines. But certain opportunities opened up when I took the role as Special Projects. I literally made that role up. It was that title up there, was taking on things that nobody else wanted to do. And I think that the lessons you've learned out of that- it still sets you, I learned out of that of just figuring it out.
And one of the projects we had was trying to work with local tourism boards, and figure out how to partner with them on Lonely Planet. We didn't have any dev resources towards it, no designers, no product managers, it was just one of those things that needed to get done, and figure out what to do. And I started by talking to tourism boards, calling making a cold list of, of tourism boards and calling them. Long stories short, that project wasn't successful the first time, but what it taught me was just listening to a user, listening to, you know, what are you trying to solve? What are the people that you're trying to influence to join with your company or with what you're trying to do- listen to them, what they actually need. I think, like the name slipping me out right now- but there's a gentleman that speaks at YCombinator a lot. He says do things that don't scale. And that's one of those things is, you're trying to solve a problem, figure out, figure it out what what the problem is first, before you start trying to build the solution for it. And those skill sets can transition into bigger and bigger things, you know, convincing those people that aren't necessarily dedicated to that project to help you out. And come, you know, bring a team together to accomplish a Wirecast.
So just take, going back to the original question, my advice would be to take any opportunity that comes your way, and just try to knock it out of the park. And whether you succeed or not in like that specific task, you're gonna learn from it, and that can transition to the next thing and the next thing.
Right. Absolutely. Yeah, Hustle, Hustle, Hustle, fail, fail fast, fail often. I think it's really about doing it. And you'd reach where you want to go, or at least you find a new path for that. Exactly. Lovely. Okay. Let's talk a bit about the industry in general, you know, the travel industry, you know, we can ignore COVID for now, you know. In general, I just wanted to understand from you how to use see DX, or digital experiences evolving, or having evolved in your industry? And how do they differ from, you know, kind of other industries out there?
I think people are going to want to start to connect more and more. Actually, be connected to things that they're investing in. I think social media is overwhelmed with algorithms and throwing everything that they think you want in your face. I think people are starting to- users are starting to realise that. I don't think that's any different in the travel industry. It's not just a hotel and a place anymore. It's a connection with a culture, to connection with a person or people experiencing differences. Diving into unknowns is like kind of challenging the status quo, you know, showing up to hotel and getting cocktails on the beach. Right? Is that is that a vacation? I mean, that's relaxing, sounds awesome, honestly, right now, but, you know, maybe, I think travel it's transitioning away from that, becoming more personal, not personalized, but personal.
And the experience, I mean, obviously, in the experience industry, we've started to work with experienced partners, with a great guy in charge of partnerships. And he's going after working with a lot of these experienced companies and curating things with like the Lonely Planet, brand behind it. So picking-handpicking experiences that we know align with our brand, we, you know, bet the person, we bet the company, that's running the experience. And then we then in turn, present that to our users. That's fairly new at Lonely Planet. But I think more along that lines is finding experiences that connect people to other people or other cultures or things that they don't get in a normal day life. It's kind of broadening their horizons, I think that's where travel is going. I think that's where the internet's going as well. You just see people getting disconnected from mass media more and more. I think that will progress as time goes on.
Yeah. And I think this particular year, you know, has kept people locked inside their homes or wherever they are. So you know, that going out and connecting with the world out there will become more prominent and more seek activity or experience, I would say.
Yeah, I think it's gonna make people more and more hungry for those type of things.
Because I mean it's forced you to look inwards towards you know- just set your family life differently as well. You know, at first when COVID hit, we were working on my office right now. And you'd have my two year old running around in the background, and dogs barking and it kind of drives you crazy at first.
And then you start to realize that- you know, you're working at your desk, and you look under the desk, and he's looking up at me, I'm like, you know, it's kind of cool. It's, you know, I may not be as productive, which isn't, you know, necessarily the best thing always, but it kind of grounds you in your day. You work most of your life, right, five days a week, at least right now, some of us obviously a lot more. But you're working five days a week, most of that time being spent away from your family, having little bits and pieces throughout the day- to see that and kind of like ground you back at Earth while you're working- it's actually I think, a blessing in disguise. But it's, you know, it's just that kind of brings you back to reality, and what's important.
Yeah. So one thing that I mean, obviously, you know, there's a lot that all of us have probably read more, and, you know, listened to more during this pandemic period, because we want to know more. But at the same time, you know, one thing that I have definitely learned more is being able to concentrate on work, while you know, kids are making noise around, you know. Back in February, when I started, I mean, you know, my company has always been remote for the last six years. So, we are used to working remote. But at the same time working from home was not something that that was natural, which we are, you know, compelled to do now, and I was someone who would need pindrop silence when I was working, I don't need that anymore. So, so that's kind of one thing. For me, like, it was hard to work in cafes and coffee shops, but I guess, you know, when I now go out, I'll probably be able to do that better.
And that was a great insight, you know, especially in terms of the DX into travel, and you know, the experience and digital experiences that you shared. Looking forward, let's do a bit of a flash forward in 2021. Any, any thing on top of your mind in terms of, you know, top most priorities when it comes to work or life, you know, that you'd like to share with our listeners?
On the personal level, I, our family's having another child. So pretty, pretty excited about that?
Oh, that's great.
Thank you, thank you. So that's, I think that's gonna be my highest priority. It's just, you know, getting our family to stay ready for that.
And that they'll come you know, early, early summer, late spring. So really looking forward to that adventure. For work, I think it just continues, I think my biggest... my biggest priority is just to continue to work on just priority mapping and figuring out what's most important, and bringing a team together to accomplish that, I think that's always a struggle as we always try to accomplish a ton of work as much as we can, as fast as we can. And sometimes I don't think that's always the case. And it's really hard to figure out what's most important and to focus on those few things, you know, take a list of 25 of your highest priorities, and circle four or five of those. We always do at the beginning of the year- to look forward- I want to accomplish these things this year. And then 10 days later that list changes and changes and changes. For me, I think I want to set a few goals and just try to stick with- actually stick with those and do whatever it takes to to get to that state.
My angle, whether it's five or 10 years from now is to run my own business, to you know, to create a digital product and, and grow it, grow a team around it, around a mission that we were all are very passionate about. So you know, that's what does it take now, if I want to be there in five years, what I need to do this year to accomplish that, and just continue to focus on that longer term goal, both personal and work-related. But yeah, that I think that's me just prioritizing and sticking to those priorities. I guess the latter of the two is the hardest part, but it is possible.
Yeah. Nice, nice and, and, you know, particularly the long term goal that you have of being able to develop, you know, a digital product, I think based on the experience that you have gained, and you know, all the learnings and, and challenges that you've probably solved at this level at one of the world's largest travel companies, is going to be of immense benefit and value. And, you know, kind of look forward to seeing seeing that product whenever it comes up whenever you have your own venture. All the best from my side.
Thank you. I think I think the hardest part, you know, it's I think anybody can and honestly, anybody can run a business, if you're willing to learn. And you start a business and grow a business and manage a team, I think the hardest part is figuring that one problem that you actually want to solve, that you can be passionate about. And you can get a team that's passionate about it, right? You know, whether that's running a digital agency and helping others or building a natural product that somebody can buy or subscribe to you. But the hardest part is just finding that one thing that you want to solve and go in after it. I haven't quite found that yet, but continue to look every day.
Absolutely. Yeah. And you know, I've been a bit involved with startups, local startups, as well as better and, you know, few different roles. And you know, one thing I always keep suggesting, to teams that I work with is, you know, don't fall in love with your product, fall in love with a problem. Because if you do that, everything else that you will do, to handle your love will actually lead you to success. So, yeah, solid, solid, solid suggestion there, Mitchell.
Okay. Now, we are coming towards the end, you know, two or three more questions. Are there any, any of your favourite books or podcasts or, you know, online resources that you keep referring to or would like to share with our listeners here?
Yeah, just on a daily basis, I try to absorb as many articles or podcasts. I get in waves of podcasts and sometimes, I'll listen to podcasts for three months straight, and then I won't listen to another one for six months, I can't. It kind of goes on and off with those.
As far as books, personal books, that kind of puts life in perspective, Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, right? It tells his story. He is a Holocaust survivor. And it tells a story about like, what's most and when, when everything is stripped away from- your family, like even down to your family, your clothings, your belongings, your livelihood. And you virtually are brought to nothing. The will to survive and the will to persist is still there. And him coming from a psychology background and trying to understand the makeups of a human's mind in that moment, he was still studying in the worst circumstances ever, like the interactions humans have in their willingness to survive. And it tells that story. And I think that that book should be read over and over and over again, it's one that stays on my desk.
It just it actually it makes you think about, about life in a different way. And it really, you know, your day to day you worry, I do this every day- you worry about the smallest things that aren't gonna matter tomorrow. And that book alone, I think would recommend to anybody. It's called Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.
On a product side, I'd say from a product management perspective, Inspired by Marty Cagan. That's it. Yep, that's a great one- kind of breaks down the different roles and different attitudes and behaviours of different aspects of a digital product team. And that really helped me from the beginning, I needed- like I said, I did not come from a tech background. I never worked with the team. When I came, I did not manage a single person. When I came into the Director role, I was handed a team. I think at the time, we had about 20- engineers, product managers, designers that were all looking to me to provide a path forward. And that book helps you bring together some of the smartest minds, quickly finding the tech leaders, elevating engineers to decision making- a lot of organisations leave them at the bottom just to knock out tasks. I think that's the worst worst decision ever. If you don't have an engineer at the top with you making decisions, you're going to end up in a bad place at the end.
And then let's see- what else- There's a really quick read called The Nature of Software Development by Ron Jeffries. Our Head of Engineering at the time- his name is Will Golden- he recommended this book to me. And it's just how you look at it. We're still fighting this every day, but it's how you look at code, right? Breaking down into the smallest pieces. Yeah, product managers, and especially designers, we always designed this grand vision, right? Where are we going to be in two years, three years from now? And then this kind of looks at that from an engineering perspective and breaks it down- it's like what is out of these 100 features you just gave me, what is that one feature we can start with that's going to deliver value to the user as quickly as possible, right and and get in progress towards that end vision. I think that helps helps me from a product management perspective, right. And again, I'm still really bad at this. I'm not, I have not mastered this book, I always try to get depth to build, you know, 10 weeks of software in three weeks. But it's a good perspective on how you can break work down in small pieces and deliver value to the end user as quickly as possible and iterative steps over and over again. So those two books from a product perspective.
Yeah, I love it. And, and by the way, this the first recommendation, Viktor Frankl, you know, that's his second recommendation I've received this week. There was another podcast recording we did last yesterday. And you know, the gentleman had same recommendation as well. So I think I'm gonna buy that look at before this weekend and probably check it out.
Yeah, I actually I read it- there's another book called Tribe of Mentors- it's like seven questions, survey questions. And all these 100. There's 100 brightest minds of these guys- from sports athletes, to business owners, etc. They interview seven questions over and over again. And it's the repetitive pattern. But isn't that one of those questions like, what are the books you recommend? And this book was a repeated pattern. So that's why I picked it up and read it, but I can see why it really does a good perspective on life. For anybody.
Yeah. Awesome. This is Tim Ferriss, I think who wrote the last book- Tribe of Mentors.
Yes, yes. Yep. Yep.
Yeah, lovely, lovely writer. He's another great writer. And obviously, there's a lot of books he's written. So awesome, great. Now, you know, one of my favourite questions. And this is kind of funny, because you are- you actually working in the travel industry? So I'll actually break this in two parts. You know, one is, do you do get to travel a lot, you know, working for Lonely Planet, or you are usually on the digital side of the company.
Unfortunately, being on fortunately, not as much as I should or would like to, you know, obviously, some of my long term personal goals require me- I personally think I should be working more. Right at this stage of my life, to get where I want to be down the road. But no, not as much as I probably should.
Okay, okay, interesting. And post COVID. Like, you know, when the word world is back to normal? Is there a place that you would like to travel? Or do something interesting or exciting that you'd like to share with our listeners?
Well, I would like to travel or where the wife would let me travel. No, I'm a mountain wilderness, outdoors guy. I have to balance out obviously, with those beach trips or city trips with the family. But I think I would love to just continue to see our environment. Unfortunately, our wild spaces shrinking. I'd love to see- hopefully we change that in the coming coming years- but any open spaces, national parks, just nature in general. That's, that's kind of my cup of tea. I would love to see that before before it continues to dwindle. Or we hopefully we switch that around as humanity. But yeah, that's me. Just continue. Yeah.
Yeah. You seem to be one of the climate changes, guys.
Yeah, becoming more and more I haven't always been, but I think it's really eye opening. What we're doing, explain it. And I yeah, I'd love to continue. Maybe that's the problem I should go after.
There you go. Yeah, exactly. We will wish you all the luck for you know, being able to hit the road and you know, visit those places, national forests and you know, all the other options that you have on your mind. Before wrapping up, where can our listeners learn more about you?
I mean, I you can follow me on LinkedIn. I honestly, I don't post a lot. I don't really have many social media accounts, and I stay connected on LinkedIn. But you can feel free to reach out to me there. That's probably where I'm most active.
So awesome. Thank you so much, Mitchell. I think this was great. We got to add the links to the books that you have mentioned in the call as part of the show notes. And finally, thank you, thank you Mitchell for sharing your story with us.
Thank you for having me.