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UMKC Innovation Center
UMKC Innovation Center
Kelly Tomlinson, Cremalab
By Sarah Mote
March 04, 2015

Who You Should Know: Kelly Tomlinson of Cremalab (and Coffee & Design and Startup Weekend and Startup Grind)

This month, in honor of Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating a few of Kansas City’s women of entrepreneurship.

Here, we introduce you to Kelly Tomlinson—one of those women who makes Kansas City one of the top cities for women in technology. Chances are if you’re active in the Kansas City startup, design and/or tech communities, you’ve already met her. She is a woman whose bio requires many hyperlinks. By day, Kelly is an experience designer at Cremalab, but her talents can’t be contained in a 9-to-5. Kelly also runs Coffee & Design, a not-for-profit set out to connect, inspire and grow design professionals. She was KC chapter director of Startup Grind’s and has organized a few Startup Weekends (and won one with Wazoo!) She also, and we’re quoting here, goes to brunch a lot and watches too much Netflix.

Kelly Tomlinson, Cremlab

How did you find your passion for UI/UX design?

It’s sort of an average story. Like every other 13 year old I was on LiveJournal (it’s funny how “blogging” has sort of always been cool), and I became fascinated by the icons/avatars you could have.

So I started trying making them on my own and after quite a bit of trial-and-error I started to get the hang of it. I made websites and show flyers for local bands at my high school and somewhere in there found out that I could actually go to school for this kinda thing. I went and got an AAS in Graphic Design + Print and did quite a bit of freelance work and worked in print shops. When I moved to Kansas City I transitioned back into the digital design world and into user experience design. 

What I love so much design and technology is that it’s an opportunity to solve real problems on any scale. Maybe it’s to inform, maybe it’s to better our daily processes more efficiently, maybe it’s to strengthen our connections, maybe it’s to literally save lives. I can’t think of any other field that gives this wide of an opportunity or lets you connect all your passions.

Design and technology is in every interest; meaning if you love snowboarding you can design snowboards or websites or make an app that shows all the best places and why. If you love the medical field but don’t want to be a doctor, then you can design new instruments or products that better solve doctors’ or patients’ problems.. . I think you get the idea.  

For those who don’t know, what is UI/UX design—and why is it important?

I believe in a holistic approach to user experience. The experience is every part that someone touches: the way they find a product (social media, Google search, word of mouth, etc.), the marketing around the product (website, social media, ads, etc.), the actual use of the product, the way they think about the product and the way they feel throughout all of that.

That’s pretty abstract but that’s what it really comes down to, everything else is just the tangible tactics and skills that make up all of that. The better executed and cohesive those things are, the better experience. 

What kind of training do you need for that? 

This is a pretty arguable topic with many camps. There’s the formal education route, the self-taught route, the accelerated education route, the online schools route and so on. I don’t think it matters. I think what matters is learning fundamentals and principals—no matter what medium you’re designing in or for, that part doesn’t change.

Being clear about the who, what, and why: who is it for, what does it do, and why does it need to exist. Regardless if it’s a magazine, a coffee table, an application, a flyer, or whatever—you need to be clear about those things because that’s what drives every design decision you make. 

For developing those skills it’s just like anything else: Do it. Any idea you have, execute it. This could mean a quick sketch that just gets the idea out, or a quick design or prototype, or years developing it. Look at as much stuff as you can, talk to as many people as you can, find people you look up to and look at their stuff and their writings. Soak up all of it, extract what you need, learn from it, and just keep doing it.

And don’t ever stop unless you don’t love it anymore. 

What about KC made you want to call it home?

So moving to Kansas City wasn’t a very intentional thing for me - it wasn’t really about the why, it was about the why not. I’d been looking to move from Phoenix and KC had a solid support system for me so I thought “why not? I can always move again if I hate it.”

So I moved here and I hated it *laughs*. A couple of years ago I wrote about the decision to stay [editor’s interruption: winning Startup Weekend and finding the entrepreneurial community was part of that decision, interestingly enough]. It was really just about finding a place here that was the shape of me. It was about finding things I connected with and being excited about those things. There’s incredible culture: arts, music, food, communities; incredible people that I’m so grateful for; incredible things happening and exciting opportunity. 

Why is KC a great place to start and grow a business? 

There’s a desire for it: more startups doing amazing things, more local food, more local shops, more local artists; there’s a desire to keep building and growing and continue pushing Kansas City forward.  

There’s a community for it: there’s the people who want it, and the people who will support you by your side. If you’re launching a new product there’s hundreds of fellow entrepreneurs going through the grind to learn from and work with. If you’re starting a new brick-and-mortar business there are thousands of people wanting to check out the new coffee shops, brewery, fashion store, music venue, art gallery, etc. If you’re starting something that highlights and showcases amazing things, there’s thousands of people who want to know about and be exposed to what’s out there. There are so many groups and organizations to network and connect with and learn from and collaborate with. 

There’s space and resources for it. As condensed as it can feel sometimes, we’re not over saturated with everything like some other areas of the world. There’s still plenty of room for more people, more ideas, more new businesses. And more room is getting made every day. There are organizations that want to kickstart, accelerate, help fund, grow, support, and raise you up. 

How did you get involved in the entrepreneurial community?

The thing is: getting involved can almost happen by accident. You go to one thing and you meet awesome people and have awesome conversations and then you just want to repeat it. The energy flows and it inspires you to want to do more and help where you can. 

So Wazoo started as a pitch at KCSW and now has paying clients. What was the biggest learning curve in that journey?

Oh man. There definitely wasn’t just one, unless you can count the whole thing.  But there are definitely a few key things I learned: 

- If you’re serious about it, you have to be serious about it. It won’t work if you’re working another full-time job and doing all your regular life things. Well, it can still work, but it’ll take exponentially longer.

- You’re only as strong as your team. 

- Listen to your customers/clients. Making decisions silo-ed because you and your team and maybe one or two other people thinks it makes sense doesn’t work. You have to talk to the people who are actually going to use it and actually going to pay for it. Ask questions and listen. Let them give you not only the answers, but often they’ll tell you the problems too. 

- Let go of the details. At least for the initial phases. If you get hung up on all the parts that don’t truly make a difference then you’ll never ship it. 

Where is Wazoo now?

In the App Store ;). We finally got it in last year and I have to admit it was a pretty cool moment. Despite keeping the name, the product has shifted quite a bit. Its focus is on children’s museums and discovery centers and it’s really meant to enhance the experience during the time there. I’ve worked with Kansas Children’s Discovery Center for the last couple of years on designing something that’s aligned with that. They’ve been using it since last summer with their attendees and are continuing to push it forward. 

More Stories of Inspiring and Aspiring Women

Read more about Kansas City’s women of entrepreneurship in our Entrepreneurs in Action. Browse and dig in to a story that inspires you.


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