January 12, 2018
solstice chicago tech company

Photography by chris murphy

Happy employees build better products. That might seem like a truism, but the leaders who take that principle seriously are few and far between.

For Kelly Manthey, who recently took the mantle as Solstice’s chief executive officer, promoting employee happiness starts with taking the time to get to know people and understand what they care about.

We spoke with her and Marisa Mann, chief operating officer, to learn more about what makes the Solstice team tick, and how its consultants keep up with the ever-changing tech landscape.

 

solstice Chicago tech company
photography by  chris murphy

FOUNDED: 2001.

WHAT THEY DO: Solstice helps Fortune 500 companies break into emerging technologies.

$5K FOR EDUCATION: All Solsties work with mentors to decide how to spend their stipends.

LIKE A PUZZLE: The Solstice team fits together because they’re all different.

2 PERCENT: The share of job applicants who end up on the team.

SOLSTICE LABS: An in-house incubator for experimenting with new technologies.

 

solstice Chicago tech company
Photography by Chris Murphy

What does Solstice do?

Kelly Manthey, chief executive officer: We're a digital innovation firm, and, at the core, our fundamental belief is that digital is never slowing down. We’re really in the business of proving what humanity is capable of when they use digital technologies.

In practice, that means we work with companies to determine which emerging technologies matter and how to make use of them. Then we help design new solutions for our clients, and turn those designs into actual products.

 

We're really in the business of proving what humanity is capable of when they use digital technologies."

 

How do you determine which technologies are going to be important?

Manthey: After talking with a client about their needs, we start to research the emerging technologies that it would make sense to use. Looking at themes across multiple accounts, we start to get a sense of which technologies are solving real problems and how willing companies are to adopt them.

Some technologies are foundational. We know mobile technologies will play a key role in any product. Then there’s more emergent experiences like connected products and conversational interfaces. We usually start clients out with small experiments using emerging technologies to see what their customers grab onto. That way we can move them toward the cutting edge while still remaining grounded in actual use cases.

Marisa Mann, chief operating officer: Our team is very passionate about emerging technologies. They always want to play around with them to see how clients can use them to differentiate themselves from competitors, improving returns on investment or enhancing their brands.

 

solstice Chicago tech company
Photography by jim prisching

Kelly, you were one of Solstice’s first employees. What has the journey from there to now been like?

Manthey: It's been an incredible ride. When I started, it was just a few of us and we were truly in startup mode. Everyone had a job, but we were also dividing and conquering all the other things that had to be done. Purely by accident, I made my way through every department of the company to help create structure. That really helped me understand every part of the business.

Purely by accident, I made my way through every department of the company to help create structure."

 

I always say that Solstice is my first baby. I’ve had all of my major life milestones here. When I started here, I was a newlywed. Three years later, I had my first child, and three years after that, I had my second child. We moved from the city to the suburbs. Throughout everything, Solstice has been the consistent thing.

What I love most now is watching others go through their life milestones here. Several people who met while working here have gotten married, and our employees are having kids, buying first houses, getting advanced degrees, climbing mountains and going on trips. And they bring all those experiences back to us.

 

solstice Chicago tech company
Photography by Chris Murphy

How do you create a work environment where people have room to thrive both in their personal lives and at work?

Mann: You spend most of your waking hours at work, so it’s important to be able to be your whole self — whether your family is going through a hard time or you’re in the happiest time of your life. That shouldn’t hurt your career. We want people to bring everything, from their passions to the things they are scared of.

We also believe that, if you need to do something to take care of yourself or your family, that has to come first. Your happiness really matters to your work.

Whether you’re employee 351 or employee 10, we want you to feel like a real person, not just a number."

 

How do you ensure that people feel comfortable actually opening up about how they’re doing?

Manthey: It starts with the leadership team. It’s really about taking the time to get to know people and have meaningful connections and relationships. That gets harder as the company grows, so we put a lot of focus on putting programs in place to help people feel connected and cared about. Whether you’re employee 351 or employee 10, we want you to feel like a real person, not just a number.

We have a quarterly meeting where we talk about our accomplishments as a company. During that meeting, we also have members of the team get up to tell a 10-minute story. That’s become really meaningful. We laugh together, we cry together and people are baring their souls to share important lessons they’ve learned.

Mann: Building the right culture is also about hiring the right people. We only hire 2 percent of our applicants, which helps us make sure of that. We also have mentorship programs that help give people a sense of belonging within the firm, as well as someone who’s going to support you and advocate for you.

 

solstice Chicago tech company
photography by chris murphy

What sets Solstice’s culture apart?

Mann: Collaboration. Back in 2013 or 2014, we worked onsite with a major client who had cubicles in their office. They gave us a senior manager cube that had a bit more space than an average one, and nine of us squeezed into it. We sat shoulder to shoulder with each other because we really valued interacting in real time to resolve problems together.

Seeing how we worked together, the client eventually ended up tearing down their own cubicles to foster more collaboration.

 

What are the characteristics you look for when you’re interviewing people?

Mann: Self awareness is number one in my book — about the things you’re good at and the things you aren’t. We also want people who are willing to give each other real-time feedback. Our organization is flat, so we need to be able to speak honestly and transparently with each other about what we’re doing, how we’re doing it and how it could be done better. And we set a high bar for ourselves.

There are also some things that are particular to different disciplines. For example, our technologists need to be able to pick up on any technology because we know things are always going to keep changing.

Manthey: We also look for curiosity and a love of learning. A lot of what we do has never been done before. Finally, we look for people who can contribute something unique or different to our team. Do you offer a perspective that isn’t already represented here?

 

solstice Chicago tech company
photography by chris murphy

How do you screen for that?

Manthey: We make sure that there are several people participating in the interview process to get multiple perspectives. The questions we ask are also deliberately open ended, to see if people can offer a unique spin on solving the problems we present.

Mann: A good analogy for why that’s important is a puzzle. Every puzzle piece is unique, but they all fit together. In learning about what people have done so far, and where they want to be in five years, we’re learning how they fit inside our puzzle.

 

Notably, Solstice’s C-suite is about 50 percent women. Do you think having a broader range of perspectives shapes the company’s culture?

Manthey: We all respect each other, but also we’re all different. We bring complementary personalities, styles and perspectives, bringing a healthy friction and a level of accountability. Having a more diverse leadership team creates a great system of checks and balances, and brings forth perspectives that some teams might not.

 

solstice Chicago tech company
photography by jim prisching
solstice Chicago tech company
photography by Chris Murphy

Solstice has seen a lot of growth just in the past few years. What’s next for the company?

Manthey: We’re at an interesting point where technology is becoming more human, personalized and conversational, and where screens are fading into the background. I think that shift is just starting.

Mann: All these technologies are coming together, but what we’re really passionate about is the experiences we deliver to our users. By focusing on people, we can accomplish increasingly difficult things that people have not even scratched the surface of yet.

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