🧘 Building Digital Solutions and Mindful Habits: An Interview With Jonathan Gorczyca

I interviewed Jonathan Gorczyca, Co-founder, and Partner at Helm Experience & Design (16 min read)

Homescreens is a publication about how we interact with our most intimate possession, our phones. Each week I interview founders and creators across industries and we reflect on the apps they use, how they’re organized, and their philosophy on notifications and mindfulness.


Jonathan Gorczyca is a Partner and Co-founder at Helm Experience & Design, a digital product studio headquartered in Buffalo, NY that helps solve business problems with technology. Since their founding in 2014, Helm has nurtured and advanced countless startups by building engaging and lasting products while fostering a true startup community.

Jonathan’s passion for helping early-stage entrepreneurs has gone beyond his work at Helm with building Open Office Time, a website that allows you to schedule pro bono time with community leaders, mentors, and advisors. Jonathan has said that he and Helm are “Buffalo to the bone,” and that Open Office Time is a reflection of that — how we can amplify and push people to connect and build great things.

What follows is our interview, edited for length and clarity.


Jason: Tell me about your backstory and how you founded your company Helm back in what — 2015, 2016?

Jonathan: Yeah, six years now! I would say back in 2011 - 2012 the Buffalo startup community was really starting to ramp up. We were co-organizing startup weekends, and a number of our friends were starting to create companies and really be engaged. The original Open Coffee Club group was meeting and my partner Nicholas was attending, and he was a founding member of that. He and I went to Canisius [College] together in the digital media program and stayed in touch this whole time. We had both been kind of working in software and designing interfaces, so in 2012 we started to meet and talk more and more about the startup community here. We both had clients we were designing interfaces for and we said — Hey, let's join forces!

A number of our clients were Z80 [startup incubator] companies, so we were working down in the Buffalo News building, and that's where we started to work on ACV [Auctions] early on, and that’s really when Helm was founded. We were a UX studio primarily designing interfaces, prototypes, things like that for people trying to launch companies. We weren't yet a full-stack software studio, then about two years in we became a full-on product studio doing UX/UI design, mobile and web app development, websites, and larger-scale design systems for companies. Now we're 10 people helping early-stage entrepreneurs launch software companies, as well as larger corporate companies innovate and kind of think like a startup.

It's been a great journey to see the progress in the city and really see the excitement around early-stage companies here.

Z80 really started to get this groundswell going. And again, those startup weekends really started to generate excitement and investors like Jordan Levy and Ron Schreiber [of SoftBank Capital] making this part of what they wanted to impact really helped these early-stage companies get off the ground, and it's really exciting to see the growth. I mean, a company like ACV over the past six years is really the poster boy of it all. Hopefully we see more ACV’s pop up.

That's really the next step, right? We need these companies to grow and get the national attention that ACV has done to better establish Buffalo as a technology and entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Yup, get that flywheel going — draw more talent in, start more companies and bring even more talent in!

Now let's dive into your phone, let me get it pulled up here. One thing I noticed which I really haven’t seen anyone else use is the Oak app. I’ve used it and love it, how do you like it? How long have you been using it?

Let's see, it's been about two years now — and that's an everyday practice for me. So as a generally anxious guy, when my daughter was being born I realized that much of this is going to be out of my control. So I started to build that practice then and I knew it was just about consistency, sitting down each day and going through it. It might be uncomfortable, it might be easy, but doing that every single day for 15 minutes over the past two years is a game-changer. It's a little bit like having a cheat code to life. It deserves to be on my home screen.

Certainly, it's a beautiful app. And, it's the same developer as Zero, that fasting app.

It's great, and the company, AJ & Smart is really fantastic. They're a German company that works in product design. It's free, and it's simple. I also really love the breathing exercises if you don't have the full time to sit down and meditate. That's all you really need.

I see we also have Asana on your home screen. What was the decision there instead of using Jira or Trello?

So, Jira really is complex, you have to configure it to exactly what you need, and we didn't need something that complex. And then Trello is just too simple. Also needs configuration and kind of strict constraints in order to be impactful, and that's where Asana really came into mind — it was a great to-do list app. We had kind of used it before, but it's been really effective. We've noticed it getting better and better and it seems to keep us in every time they update. They've just recently brought in things like goals, which allow us to bring Helms OKRs right into the work that we do. That's really, really powerful.

I can't tell you how many times I've configured Jira or tried to configure Jira into something that would make sense for us. We really like what Asana is offering between the workload management and the goals. Now, they also have a feature called portfolios, so as we work on different clients, you can group them and see the main target objectives that we're working towards in an easily visualized view. We love it so far, and it keeps evolving to meet our needs.

So jumping into your home folder. I recognize one that I actually just picked up a month or two ago, the Eero Mesh Wi-Fi system.

It's fantastic. I really love how you can manage which devices may have access or not. I have a whole slew of testing devices next to me that are sometimes sucking a little bit of bandwidth even when they're at rest, so it's really easy to put them all in a category and hit pause so that they're not taking any connection. I've been loving it.

What does your smart home look like? I see apps for Ring, Nest, Hue lights — what's the setup look like at home?

It's kind of been a whole bunch of things we've been trying out over the past two years. Google Home is really nice, we have that on the counter instead of any sort of Alexa. Love Nest, we have a few thermostats to easily manage that stuff. The light bulbs are great for fun, right? So Halloween we turned everything orange and it was fun for the little ones. Wemo is just managing timers on certain lights — whether or not we're home or otherwise. For camera, I really love this Wyze camera. They're super affordable so you can get a bunch of them and you can network them together and set alerts and everything. So it's a really, really nice option for a camera. I actually don't have the Ring installed because we have an older doorbell and I'm afraid to ruin that. It's kind of cobbled together but it works and gets it done. Someday I'll really do an overhaul and make sure everything's talking to one system.

Have you seen the Echo Loop? The on-hand Amazon ring?

I did. I signed up for the Early Access. The next wave of wearables is going to be pretty interesting, like we also have the Oura Ring now.

Do you know anybody who's used that? I'm actually fascinated because I hear that is the best way to track your sleep is through the Oura Ring.

One of my previous interviews, with Lena Levine, she mentioned that she uses that and likes it.

You have a folder called Flow, I’m guessing short for “Cash Flow?” I noticed you have Robinhood, you have the Charles Schwab app — have you been investing for a while? Or were you like me and got into it because of the pandemic?

You know, I'm a little more traditional regarding Charles Schwab and just being conservative there. Robinhood is basically fantasy for me, you know, it's gambling. I don't put a lot of money in there. You can buy fractional shares of anything, which is really fun to track, but I look at that as lost money. Kind of like coinbase as well, but I'm a little more invested in the crypto space. I try to just stick to a plan, and then continue with that and be consistent. That's the best thing. It's like meditation — do it daily, monthly, quarterly and the results will return in hopefully 20 years.

Right, dollar-cost averaging. I was using Schwab as my brokerage, but I moved off of it because the app was terrible and moved to Fidelity which isn’t that much better. All of these financial apps need a makeover!

You would think with things like Betterment and Wealthfront they really would push towards better interfaces, better user experiences? I'm shocked that they don't — I'm really shocked. I think there's such an opportunity for them, and even financial advisors as well. There are all these portals that aggregate things and they're all really hurting for a better experience in the interface department.

Robinhood really jumped out to me as well because they're doing some things with the phone’s haptics, like there’s a little rocket ship animation and the phone would vibrate as the rocket thrusters would go. I thought that was so fantastic for a company to spend the time doing that, only for this little delightful experience. It's really those details that help them get ahead. If you go to the crypto section, you can see some of those — almost like a glitch animation that they're using. It is really fun and unique and it feels buttery smooth, which I appreciate as a designer and product guy.

All right, moving to Audible, I always have to ask, what are you listening to right now?

So the last book I closed is called the Great Game of Business. It's about open-book management, something that we want to implement at Helm. It's really greater transparency for everybody across the company to understand what drives the business and how they can affect it. But the one previous to that was Making of a Manager by Julie Zhuo from Facebook, and she's incredible. She was a designer early on and grew up into the management of design role at Facebook, and it was really nice to hear her insight on that path, and some of the challenges and opportunities that she came across.

I always have a book going on Audible, and then I have a physical book around the house. I'm very focused on learning professional development, business, design in most of my reading. I'm reading a physical book called The Design of Childhood, which is about shaping the world around kids, and how they think about it. And as a designer, how you could affect that; or as a parent, how you can affect that based on what's around the house and what you introduce to them. So I'm excited to get into that a little further.

Very cool. What book would you recommend for an aspiring UX/UI designer?

Lean UX. That's the one that you have to read. Lean principles are core to my thinking and how we think at home and it's really getting ideas out into the world and better validating them so that you can learn faster.

The other book I recommend to everybody is Andy Grove’s book High Output Management. It is one of the only books that I've read multiple times in my life, and I'd recommend that to anybody starting a company or working within a company.

I’ll have to check that out myself. Any podcasts that you look forward to every week?

How I Built This is my favorite because you get that insight into the journey of the entrepreneur. If I'm going for a little wackier stuff I'll listen to the Joe Rogan Experience, depending on what guests — you have to be a little selective if you're gaining value from it.

I've actually trailed off podcasts in favor of audiobooks. I think I kind of went too hard in the podcasts.

I see you have your Reminders app and the Calendar app right there on your homepage. Do use them in tandem?

My calendar is my go-to. I live and die by the calendar and manage multiple. I have a personal one, a work one, I have a few shared with my wife which is also a game-changer for any relationship is setting those expectations of where you need to be and when. I also have one shared with my wife for my daughter, so like daycare and childcare schedules, which is great — doctor's appointment — stuff like that.

Reminders we use as a checklist for things we have to get done around the house. Sometimes a grocery list or two, but we really live and die out of that calendar app. And it's nice because it syncs across everything and you don't have to worry about keeping it up to date.

The other app I really love that’s just an Apple stock app is Notes. I keep a daily log of notes across everything, every single day. — it's a running list, top-down, that probably goes back at least six years that's a constant notepad on my phone for business and personal life.

Wow, just one note — that’s crazy. So you could just scroll back to “Hey I have an idea for a company called Helm.” What kind of notes do you take? Is it just a brain dump?

Yeah. I take notes meticulously on everything, whether it's a meeting like this, or a one-on-one, or a client meeting, I just feel like it's really good practice to get that stuff out of your head and jot it down. You just scroll back in time and say — Hey, what were my thoughts during this meeting? Or what were the action items in that? And it's become really, really powerful in my life.

Do you ever think about how much time is spent on your phone and digital mindfulness?

It's very, very front of mind. I have limits set on any social app to warn me when I'm at 15 minutes of time — they're set that low. And I try to be strict about it. I think when everything started to change in March, I was a little more lax, and was like — the world's chaotic, I can do what I want and eat what I want! And then a few months in, I said — Okay, we need to rein this back in.

As a designer who thinks and builds digital products, we have to be very conscious about what we're doing with other people's attention. Over the past, let's say 10-15 years, we said — Hey, let's just get more attention. We want more people's eyes. We want people scrolling for longer. And you're seeing the shift now to say — well, maybe we should optimize the time people spend on the app and add more value as opposed to just more time in the app. We're realizing as humans, that that's not a good thing for us. So we need to find that balance and the time we spend on apps like social media, certainly.

Even Apple and Google, they're starting to think about that. The screentime feature alone in iOS is very powerful for people. And it's a good one to just keep in check. You could always ignore it, but it's good to keep yourself in check. I actually wish Netflix and these streaming companies would consider something like that as well.

Maybe one day. How do you handle your notifications? Do you get irked when you have a notification sitting on your screen?

Not too much. I try to let that stuff pass. I actually mute a lot of it, so that only the important things come through. Like, most of Slack is muted, but I'm in there every day, right? I just don't want the pings. Most of my notifications are muted so that I can control my schedule of when I go in, when I check something, just a better control over my life.

It can be daunting though, especially with all the red dots on your screen and the count of things going up. It creates anxiety, and we have to realize that we are in control not the device.

What can we find on the other pages of apps that you have?

I try to download anything I think that's cool on Product Hunt. I prioritize the things furthest left — so the home screen is all the most commonly used, the second one is the second most commonly used, and I'm constantly dragging and dropping them.

So on my next screen, I actually have the Zero app for fasting, the Nextdoor app for just like keeping in touch with the neighborhood. Reporter is a really great app — it's basically an application that will survey you. You create the questions, you create the scale in which you answer, and then it just shows you the data. And you can export it as JSON to visualize it. Over the past couple of years, I've had it ask me how I'm feeling, how did I eat? How did I sleep? It just asks me and I quickly fill it out and forget about it. Then you know, hopefully, years in the future, I'll see some trends and how I've been doing.

Mealime is great because it has a bunch of recipes, and when you click on it and it builds your shopping list based on the recipes that you like. So we get recipe ideas, and then it just builds our list out. My wife and I have really enjoyed that.

I don't know if you've played around with iOS 14 yet, but would you take advantage of the app library where it’s pre-sorted by Apple? Or would you keep your current system?

I think I keep my current system. Priority is a really important thing for me. It's where we decide to place our time and our efforts, and I don't want another technology handling that for me. I want to say — Okay, these are my most important things I need to do, and this is who I want to be, this is what I want to engage in regularly, and these are the tools to get me there. That's really driven a lot by the meditation practice and awareness of what you're becoming whether you want to be that way or not. So then you have to employ practices in your daily life to say — Well, I actually don't want to be someone who uses social media too much, so I'm going to move these things away from me. As opposed to fasting, meditation, connection with family and friends — these are things that you want to amplify. So I bring the tools closer to my eyes on a higher frequent basis.

This was great. This came full circle, we opened with mindfulness and meditation and closed with mindfulness meditation. Thanks for taking the time to do this.

I really enjoyed myself so thanks for doing this. I feel like these newsletters and especially with this specific kind of home screen dive into people's personal life — I absolutely love it. So yeah, thanks for putting this together.


Endnote

Thanks for reading my interview with Jonathan. Check out his work at Helm and read a case study, and be sure to drop by Open Office Time if you’re in the Western New York region.

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