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Summer 2003 CalBusiness  
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At IDEO, Innovation is The Business of Design

It’s a typical Saturday, and Tom Kelley is out perusing the toy store aisles with his eight-year-old son. Suddenly, his son points at an Estes MaxTrax rocket with a unique altimeter nose cone and parachute that has caught his eye. “Dad, did you have anything to do with this?” the boy asks. “Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I did,” says Kelley.
Such a scenario occurs regularly for the Kelley family, whether they’re shopping for toys, computers, household gadgets, or virtually anything else people buy. That’s because Kelley is part of the creative team that runs IDEO, one of the most innovative design and development firms in the world. The founder and present chairman of that company happens to be his brother, David Kelley.

At IDEO, Kelley, now general manager, has helped the company to grow its current 350 employees and 8 offices worldwide. IDEO has guided the creation of products and services that span the range from whimsical to sleek to functional to life-preserving—including the original Apple mouse, Oral-B’s soft-grip kids’ toothbrushes, and Kelley’s favorite, a portable defibrillator. The latter, a piece of equipment that allows a layperson to administer a heart-resuscitating shock to victims of cardiac arrest, which is now kept handy on all major airlines and other public places, says Kelley, “has saved more than 100 lives.”

Tom Kelley joined the startup in 1987 when there was only one office in Palo Alto and 23 employees hand-picked by David as much for their ability to pull pranks as for their design skills. “My job description was not well defined, but we knew it had something to do with business,” Kelley laughs, adding that his office consisted of “the desk of whoever wasn’t there on any given day.”

Kelley immediately settled into the role he knew best from his training at Haas and his five-year stint as a management consultant—marketing guru. “I was basically the whole department for 10 years,” he says. “I think I sat in on meetings with more than 1,500 prospective clients.” When not in meetings, Kelley was furiously penning proposals to clients detailing how IDEO could create new products and services to help them solve their business problems—and getting more than half of them accepted.

After Nightline profiled IDEO in 1999, Kelley was given the go-ahead by his brother to carve some time out of his work schedule to write a book about the company. The fruits of that labor, The Art of Innovation (Doubleday, 2001) has sold well and launched Kelley’s public speaking career. “The book has completely changed my life,” he says with amazement. “People look at me differently now. Even my Japanese mother-in-law was caught proudly telling a clerk in the store that her ‘son’ wrote the book.”

—Marguerite Rigoglioso


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Tom Kelley
Tom Kelley
MBA 83

General Manager, IDEO,
Palo Alto, CA
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