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A Day in the Life of Michelle Excell, Founder and Creative Technology Strategist at The Antipodean

San Francisco, USA
LBB sits down with Michelle to get the behind-the-scenes rundown on how a serial startup founder manages their time, combats burnout and utilises immersive tech every day

Michelle Excell is the founder of creative technology consultancy The Antipodean, and co-founder of Voiijer, an exploration-technology start up she launched with Michael Barth in 2019. 

Both are in rapid growth mode, as she tells LBB: “The beginning of Covid-19 had me questioning if I should leave the company I’d been building for four years and return to full-time work. But then business at The Antipodean increased four-fold, and my start up got funded.”

While the wider advertising industry will have ‘worked with or heard of the creativity technology discipline by now,’ Michelle admits that many are still unsure about what creative technology strategy is. Here, LBB sits down with Michelle to find out. 

“I pay myself to learn, and clients pay me to interpret,” she says. She has creative production companies like The Electric Factory as partners, and the likes of Clorox, Superblue, Walmart, Edelman and MullenLowe as clients:  “I take a big picture view of a brand’s industry, product, services, audience, and channels and look for opportunities for creative and immersive technologies, such as augmented reality, voice, AI, extended reality, experiential, and non-traditional digital. I couple it with an understanding of how the technology itself actually works, and the way ‘real people’ are using it.” 

Preparing for the day actually starts the night before

Michelle admits that, until recently, her ‘day in the life’ would have looked a ‘lot different’. “Think:  Up at 5 am in bed reading e-newsletters, browsing LinkedIn and Discord for trends and following leads for The Antipodean, before almost daily 6 am meetings,” she says. “It’d end way into the evening as I’d be online to work with Australia and Hong Kong.” 

‘Founder burnout’ is a big industry talking point, and one that Michelle herself knows all too well. She tells LBB how, in the past few months, she’s been working through ‘some serious burnout issues’ with her coaches. “Get a coach,” she says. “Entrepreneurs need sounding boards.” 

“It turns out that getting on your phone first thing in the morning isn’t great for your mental or physical health, and that ‘firing on all cylinders at 5:30 am’ doesn’t always equate to peak productivity throughout the day. Who knew?” she says. 

LBB asks Michelle what is on her mind first thing, if she isn’t ‘immediately plugging in’? 

“I don’t wake up thinking about how to ‘hack Alexa’ or ‘use AR to sell socks.’ I think in terms of problems and opportunities,” says Michelle. “But I do actually wake up thinking about how recent behavioural changes in personal audio or virtual assistants, coupled with what is now technically possible - and ten times easier - could lead to opportunities for my clients and potential partners in say, augmented audio for example. I’m a tech optimist. Starting my days with time away from screens allows my mind time to roam, to be creative, and to capture the hypotheses that form in my 6 am brain.” 

“I wake up to music now. I was ‘this close’ to buying an old school clock radio when I realized I could set an alarm on my Sonos Roam in the bedroom and keep my phone in the kitchen overnight.” Michelle says she still gets up “super early", but in an effort to stay off her phone she reads, walks the dog, works out, or when inspiration strikes she tries instead to whiteboard, sketch, or do deep-work offline. 

Michelle’s tech of choice in the morning is her ReMarkable tablet, which she uses offline to start her day

Then the ‘work’ work starts

For The Antipodean, Michelle is currently working on Wave III of a shopper-led consumer AR campaign for a major cleaning brand and is in the brief development phase of a celeb-driven volumetric AR experience for a CPG/FMCG client, with meetings typically starting around 8:30 am: “When clients haven’t worked with these technologies before – including producing and launching them – a lot of the initial work is explaining how and why it works, then building a specialised campaign brief and architecture with them. A big part of my service is skill-building for my clients.” 

“AR - or any immersive tech - is not just a deliverable,” says Michelle, who spends a lot of time educating clients on what an AR brief looks like, and holding inspiration and strategy sessions. “AR is experiential and lives on a scale from utility to entertainment. It can ‘be’ a lot of different things, and there really are great opportunities for any brand. We work together to find out what experiences, on which platforms, we can really see our consumers using, and what their experience means for the brand (think: ROI). I also work closely with a client’s media team because the campaign needs its own plan and objectives.”

Michelle manages the core creative tech strategy in-house and staffs up for creative development and SME’s - in blockchain/NFT or media strategy for example - as the work calls for it. The Antipodean partners with production companies like The Electric Factory for design and build or works with a client’s in-house or preferred team. 

"My home office is definitely the best office I’ve ever had and overlooks Uptown Oakland.” Volumetric scan taken with the Polycam app. 

Alongside client work, peer support is like ‘therapy’ for Michelle 

A key part of Michelle’s development as a business leader comes from coaching: “It’s helping grow my businesses,” she says. And peer groups provide emotional support too in the sometimes lonely world of entrepreneurship.  

“I have several coaches – for growth, process-tising, and female founders – and I’m in a couple of peer groups too who I regularly catch up with. I’m in one group that Virginia Raike, now director of brand marketing at Tellus, started with several women in similar career-life stages. It’s almost like therapy. This started during the pandemic, and it’s even led to collaboration: one fellow group member did a CRM consulting project for The Antipodean and we’ve become real-life friends.” 

“I’ve been a mentor during most of my career – in formal programs and on-the-job – but it took me 20 years to realise that I needed mentoring too,” says Michelle. 

Industry research still requires time on Social Media

“For me, it’s all about perspectives and specific ways people are utilising technology. With consulting, I work mainly on brand campaigns, but I also do business consulting, which involves setting my clients up to handle more immersive work, and learn and grow from it. Networking helps me keep up to speed with who’s doing what, and gather use cases to show or prove most anything” says Michelle. 

Dedicating structured time to read, play, and add to her knowledge operating system (KOS) has been paramount in helping Michelle grasp the current technological landscape, stay on top of news and announcements, and importantly, spot trends. Instead of that early morning scrolling, she now reserves time in her week to deep dive on industry news, trends, and influencers and has set up a database in Notion to store and tag important articles, projects and resources. 

Michelle walks us through her KOS in Notion, where she tags and saves for later any noteworthy news and features to return to.

“I also spend time physically reviewing new immersive tech, like demoing a new AR project or photogrammetry scanning app – a passion area of mine,” says Michelle. She creates video demos and notes the strengths and weaknesses of the experience. She frequently calls on this research during client engagements, or shares it on LinkedIn. 

From a fossil to an NFT - Michelle’s day covers the breadth of tech innovations 

“Though Voiijer is a product start-up, we also do consulting work,” she says. “This afternoon I’m catching up with artist Marienela Fuentes, who works with palaeontologists in Mexico turning fossils into incredible original artworks in her Spiritus series. She casts the fossils into a skeleton, and then, working with beadwork artisans from the Huichol tribe, they are transformed into works of art. She has a sculpture going into Google in the Bay Area this month.” 

A real-life dino: ‘ICHIRO’, SACRED BEINGS (2018) in Washington D.C. by @marianelafuentesart 

At the moment, Michelle is working with Marianela to crowdfund her next piece in the series with a fractional NFT artwork. “Voiijer connected to this project through our friends at Artafakt, and my role was advising how we could create a digital asset as an NFT to fund the creation of her next dinosaur. I recommended creating it in Tilt Brush and partnered her with local CDMX artist Mocre to collaborate in VR.”  

“We are deep in product development on Voiijer right now, with an expected MVP launch in Summer 2022. Since receiving funding both Michael and I have rejoiced in having a team to lead again. We have a distributed team in Uruguay, USA, Amsterdam, Australia, and Hong Kong where my co-founder is based. Right now, I’m leading product, and managing several concurrent projects including the website, comms planning, and Blockchain and NFT strategy.” Michelle is excited about what Voiijer will become, as she says: “we’re going to change the world, for the better.”

As Michelle wraps up her day,  LBB asks one final question: How many hours a day does a serial founder really work? “My average during the week is a 12 hour day, when it gets any more than that, it’s a little bit crazy. I try to keep between 10 and 12 hours and it’s not always deadline-driven work,” says Michelle. 

“I always leave Friday thinking, ‘Oh I should definitely work this weekend,’ - but then I get into the weekend, and decide not to, except when I have to! Working healthier takes dedication, vigilance, and a promise to not be too hard on oneself.”

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