Museums that act like startups: An Interview with Douglas Hegley


This week we’re kicking off a series called “Museums that act like startups.” Museums are helping lead the way in figuring out how we can all benefit from technological innovations and in this series we’ll speak with museum professionals whose inspiring work is changing the way we experience art. 

Hackathons, incubators, 3D printing, agile, Scrum…these terms are usually associated with startups, but they also describe ideas and practice museums have been utilizing for years. Take agile: in 2008 David Ellis, Michael Jenkins, Willy Lee, and Robert Stein of the project published this paper on the application of agile to museum project management. At Museums and the Web 2010 Dana Mitroff Silvers and Alon Salantfacilitated an application of the methods to museum web site development (and Silvers recently wrote about  the Metropolitan Museum of Art using the approach to understand the needs of museum visitors). The Australian Museum has been thinking about agile since 2011.

Hackathons are another great example: Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum hosted its first hackathon, Art Bytes, in 2012 and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts is hosting a hackathon in celebration of their upcoming Strandbeest exhibit next month.

These are just a few of the many cases of museums acting a lot like startups. Our founder Brendan Ciecko recently had the pleasure of speaking with Douglas Hegley, Director of Media & Technology at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), who knows this crossover well. The two discussed how the Mia is embracing many startup and lean business methodologies.


Brendan Ciecko (BC): From time to time, I’ve heard you reference Eric Ries of The Lean Startup (we’re big fans!). What is the most impactful learning of The Lean Startup methodology that Mia has incorporated into their operations? When did this happen?

Douglas Hegley (DH): I believe it began about seven years ago under the leadership of our director and president Kaywin Feldman. She wanted Mia to be more lean and agile and has done her hiring with that in mind. When she began focusing on the technology team, she convinced me to join four years ago, and it’s been a great opportunity. Today we’re guided by the lean principles and influenced by The Lean Startup way of thinking, while always remembering that people come first - that means our audiences as well as our staff. Mia is committed to taking calculated risks in the pursuit of effective innovation that will connect our museum to our community like never before.

BC: In the startup world, and especially at Techstars, we’re all about KPIs (Key Performance Indicators)… what are you tracking internally and externally?

DH: The KPIs at Mia are always evolving. Historically we’ve looked at tracking visitors - the number of people through the doors, and fundraising/ philanthropy, year over year. These are the most-common metrics in the museum world. In terms of knowing our audience, we relied on paid membership programs, which appealed to many but still left us with many visitors about whom we knew almost nothing (general admission to Mia is free, most visitors just breeze on in). Today what we’re aspiring to is engagement and loyalty, which we will empower through the use of enterprise-level customer management tools and deep personalization.

There’s an additional layer of complexity here, though. Mia is a world-class museum with what is essentially a regional audience. Based on those two contexts, how do we best measure something like participation? It’s not just someone walking through the door. Anything you do - online, onsite, wherever - to participate makes you part of our audience. Therefore to build loyalty and repeat participation we seek to leverage personal networks. We see a recommender effect as a way to drive engagement and loyalty.

We’re figuring out how we can measure and report on these things. We do use the Net Promoter Score (NPS) as a base metric, although we tend to see a ceiling effect, typically hitting in the 90s (out of 100). We are currently implementing an expanded version of the Dallas Museum of Art’sDMA Friends program (it’s open-source, and we are partnered with three other museums on this next phase, funded by the IMLS). We also integrate ticketing with Customer Relationship Management (CRM) - we are one of the first museums to fully implement Salesforce! All this helps keep our audience engaged; they will soon earn points based on participating, spreading the word, and even consuming content. They can redeem those points for exclusive experiences.

This is all underscored by the fact that we don’t really see other museums or non-profits as our competition - they are our partners. To the general public, museums might as well be franchises of a single corporation. If someone has a bad experience at one museum, do you think they’ll be motivated to visit another? We are more likely to succeed by working together. We’re actually competing with organizations that offer different kinds of experiences that compete for people’s leisure time - malls, pro sports teams, amusement parks, etc. In addition, we are influenced by the work of John Falk who has written that people come to museums with very specific goals in mind, including socializing, learning, sharing, contemplating, or any combination of those. Understanding those goals and helping visitors accomplish them will result in delighted customers. We want all of our visitors to leave feeling satisfied and eager to visit again.

BC: Tell me about the role of “Venture Innovation Director.”

DH: Creating that staff position was a logical step toward fulfilling our current strategic plan: Dynamic New Approach (DNA). It recognized the need for our entire organization to embrace innovation. We were asking ourselves “Do we have the right skills and mindset to drive innovation?” and, being honest the answer was probably “not so much”. That is to say, we had the right spirit, but maybe lacked the specific skills and connections to be successful, not to mention sufficient time to focus on developing and implementing potentially disruptive ideas. So we created a leadership position focused on doing just that: driving innovation.

We were influenced to this approach by Jeff DeGraff and his team at the Innovatrium. They worked through the competing values framework with a small group of museum staff, and taught us to question our dominant logic, take calculated risks, and test our hypothesis in rapid, iterative cycles.

Hunter Wright, who is our Venture Innovation Director, helps us to challenge long-held assumptions. She spearheads collaboration across industries, and is constantly bringing new ideas, new voices, and fresh perspectives to the table. Essentially she’s a catalyst for change. To be honest, I envy her. I think she has a really cool job and a pretty intriguing title! It’s great to have her on board here at Mia.

BC: When will we see the “Growth Hacker” position?

(both laugh)

DH: Sure, why not? Perhaps you shouldn’t hold your breath just yet!

BC: What are some of your favorite tools?

DH: We have embraced Agile methodology with SCRUM in our digital and technology project work. We get our post-it notes, use all of the walls, and get everyone to the board for standing meetings that result in actions, not just chatter. Trello has been a great online tool for summarizing the process. I think we currently have more than twenty different Trello boards!

Our software developers have made great use of Slack. There’s a lot of daily back and forth on there - or so I’m told, I’m afraid I’m not adopting the tool as quickly as they have! They’re also on Github, of course, as we do our best to share anything we build to benefit the field.

Like I mentioned before, we use salesforce for CRM as well as ExactTarget as our email platform. Many of these tools are relatively new for us, and we are just getting out of the gate as we speak. We plan to be talking about our process and progress at upcoming conferences, like MCN2015 here in the Twin Cities, as well as AAM and Museums and the Web in Spring 2016. Stay tuned.

I also try to be out and about as much as possible, sharing with the field. Nothing replaces face-to-face!

It’s wonderfully true: “I feel like I’m working at a 100-year old startup” @artsmia@brendanciecko#MuseumNext#nostockoptionsunfortunately

We think this speaks volumes of the culture of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, don’t you?

Want to hear more from Douglas? Follow him on Twitter @dhegley

Are you a museum that functions like a startup? Or a museum that simply loves startups? Let’s chat.

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