TE 32: Sam Aquillano: Design Museum Boston

Episode Summary:

Sam Aquillano is the Co-Founder & Executive Director of Design Museum Boston. 

The DMB produces public exhibitions, events, and programs to show the who, why, and how behind the things we see and use everyday. DMB aims to highlight the positive impact good design and innovative thinking can have on literally everything. 

In this episode you will learn:

  • How to teach your team to read your mind. 
  • How to delegate and not be a control freak. 
  • The answer to “What does a CEO do everyday?”
  • How Sam got the opportunity to design the Bose speakers for the iPod. 
  • How Sam supplemented his income from his corporate job to work full time on the museum.
  • How Sam took a staircase into entrepreneurship instead of jumping off a cliff. 


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A Natural Born Leader

As a child, Sam Aquillano was always moving and getting into everything. The oldest of three children, Sam was a natural born leader, with a brother and sister following behind. He admits that he and his brother were always in trouble, and, he says, “we’d always start little businesses together.”

Recalling his various businesses, including selling baseball cards on the school bus, burning custom CDs for classmates.He and his brother would create postcards where classmates would write ten song titles on the postcard. They’d then download the songs, and burn custom CDs.

Another business he and his brother ran was EarthWorks Lawn Care. The two boys built relationships with neighbors and townspeople, but, only started with a couple of clients. After an investment in equipment, and finding new clients vacation rentals, the two had expanded their business beyond their neighborhood.

He describes this time of his life, saying, “the freedom of building your own business is very invigorating.”

Leading The Way In College

Continuing his role as a natural born leader, Sam eventually found himself ready to leave his home of Erie, Pennsylvania and his high school town of Albany, New York behind him. He chose to attend  the Rochester Institute of Technology for Industrial Design, because of it’s proximity between the two cities. While there, he continued his entrepreneurial ways.

Sam started the first ever student-run design conference at Rochester called Thought at Work. The event, which was named by friend and partner Don Layman, who joined Sam in launching the event.

He says the two of them were intimidated by all the professionals at the conferences they attended for design engineers. They knew they weren’t the only students who felt that way. So, they developed the Thought at Work Conference to address the needs solely of students.

The conference continues today, says Sam, and has grown, as a platform for sponsors, and exhibitors, It attracts students from all over the north east, Sam says he still takes time out to speak and encourage students at the conference.

Leading By Delegating

Sam says one of the most important lessons he learned while working i n the Thought at Work conference is “delegating is hard, especially when you’re a control freak.”

However, he says, the desire to make it work, to make that conference successful became more important than being a control freak.

Leading others, he says, and delegating work, is necessary for success, because you can’t do everything.”

Sam says that position taught him other things about creating and growing a business. One of the things it taught him was the fact that adding employees required a need for operation manuals.

“The employees needed structure,” he tells Teenage Entrepreneur host Jordan Agolli. Sam then gives wage, sage and experienced advice, “tailor your inner control freak-ism, to developing operation manual so that employees make you totally irrelevant for the day to day operations.”

Explaining that he learned quickly that employee training was ineffective, he says the manuals were much more efficient. When someone is hired, “they get the manual the same day, and they know what do to.”

“Downloading your brain into your employee’s brain isn’t an option,” says Sam, “remember that you can’t put everything in operation manuals.”

After reading an article entitled “What Does CEOs do all day?”, Sam says he realized the importance of company leders to have meetings. Meetings with employees, specifically. Sam says “it’s important that you have constantly have meetings with your employees” since those meetings provide you opportunity to train those employees, share your vision and help them improve and grow – all of which help create a valuable team.”

Leading In College

Following college, Sam’s first job was with the Bose Corporation. Aquillamo was the company’s number one draft pick, and at age 20, Sam went to work with amazing designers who served him as managers and mentors.

While at Bose, Sam was able to work on projects like the SoundDock speakers developed for use with Apple’s iPod.

Sam says he’s thankful for his supervisor, Mike Lowdy, for the complete trust shown in Sam on this major project. Sam worked on the SoundDock from ground zero to seeing the first product coming off the assembly line.

That project, and his job at Bose helped create the idea fo the Design Museum Foundation. Sam says he came to realize there are many people who design things who go mostly unknown.

He says most regular Americans don’t know about the love and effort that goes into each of the products used each day in households around the world.

As an engineering-focused company, founded by an educator, Sam was enabled to use his position to educate others, both internally and in a night teaching position at the Institute of Technology and Mass College of Art.

Leading In The Present

While working at Bose as a Corporate Designer, Sam was also First Chapter Chair at  Industrial Designer Society of America in Boston, and a teacher at Wentworth, while also a student at Babson’s MBA program. He was also dating the woman who would eventually become his wife.

Even though he had plenty of energy as a boy, that “firecracker” mentality was continuing as a young man. In addition to all of his responsibilities, he was busy developing the concept and idea fo the Design Museum Foundation.

Currently the museum’s revenue is generating sales, with some funds from membership, with $30 Student Memberships all the way up to $20,000 memberships for companies and major donors. Membership accounts for almost a third of the foundation’s revenue.

Another 40% of the revenue is made up of Program Sponsorships, and another 20% from grants awarded for the museum. The remaining 10% of foundation revenue comes from a retail store or gift shop sales in Boston.

Leading From Lessons Learned

Sam says the life lesson he’s learned is that he took risks with his time, not his money. He worked multiple jobs, calculated his time and the money he needed. The result of the efforts, he says, has resulted in a nice staircase, not a cliff for him to jump off of.

Sam says that if he could write his own legacy, he would want to be remembered as someone who valued education and learning. He credits education his desire to learn and he efforts (of himself and others) that led him to where he is now.

He advises his younger self to “have more patience, listen more… do not be such a bulldozer.”

Saying that he’s learned more about this since becoming a father, he wishes he had stopped and listened to people more. “Talk to your family and friends,” Sam says, “be honest with them about what you’re doing and that you are about to start this long journey of entrepreneurship. Ask your family to be patient, and to understand that  you aren’t being selfish or distant.”

Most importantly, Sam says, “don’t lose yourself.”

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